When you despatch your children through the school gates each morning, you trust they’re heading into a safe environment. That nothing beyond those gate will put them in danger. Rosamund Lupton‘s debut novel Three Hours turns that belief on its head.
It’s 9.15am one cold, snowy November morning at the Cliff Heights School in rural Somerset. The morning’s session has barely begun when shots are fired. Headmaster Matthew Marr lies in a pool of blood, powerless to protect his students from the armed gunman who paces the school’s corridors. Unknown to him, accomplices hide in the surrounding woods intent on causing further harm.
Disturbingly Plausible Scenario
The disturbing scenario of Three Hours is one that’s frighteningly familiar from TV news images of school shootings like those at Dunblane Primary School in 1996 and Columbine High School in 1999.
Rosamund Lupton takes us behind those headlines to examine the reactions of people caught up in a similar attack. Hour by hour we share the fears of the students and staff trapped at the Cliff Heights school; the anxiety of parents waiting for news and the frustrations of police officers tasked with ending the siege without further bloodshed.
In the midst of their fear lies bewilderment about the identity and the motivation of the gunmen. Are they terrorists or someone with a grudge against the school? Is the entire school the target or are the attackers after two pupils only: the brothers Rafi and Basi Bukhari, both Muslim refugees from Aleppo?
An Unlikely Target
Three Hours is set in a high performing, well-funded liberal school that prides itself on its philosophy of tolerance, inclusivity and openness. It’s the last place anyone would expect to be targetted by extremists. As the deputy head tells the police psychologist drafted in to help identify the attackers:
We have safe spaces for debate, democracy in action through the school council … tolerance is an integral part of the school. It’s why we don’t have a uniform and the students are free to practice whatever religion they choose, or none.
But even these principles provide no protection against dark forces that actively encourage and support radical racist messages and actions. One morning, without warning, those forces are unleashed on the school’s sprawling campus.
Three Hours illustrates how radicalisation can happen anywhere and how extremist groups prey on susceptible minds, using complex technology platforms to cloak their identities. By the time the attack is over, pupils, teachers and parents will have had their beliefs and trust put to the severest test.
Courage In Face of Danger
But Rosamund Lupton also shows how love and courage prevail in the midst of danger and uncertainty. Some of the people involved find skills and strengths they never realised they had. Others discover who they truly are, what they believe in and for what they are willing to die.
In the school’s isolated theatre, one group of students press on with their rehearsal of Macbeth, finding that Shakespeare’s portrayal of ambition and murderous intent helps them deal with their own unfolding drama. In the pottery building, a 60-year-old teacher converts tables into a pretend house. While her class of lively seven-year-olds are diverted into making miniature clay cups and bowls, she makes clay tiles to protect them from flying glass. And in the library, sixth-former Hannah Jacobs strips to her bra, using her t shirt to stem the blood flowing from her headmaster’s body.
Healing Power of Love
The real hero of the school, and the epitome of selfless love is Rafi; the pupil who finds an explosive device in the school grounds, raises the alarm and shows the way to evacuate one building. The person who, warned by police advice that he might be a target, puts his life in danger to go in search of his younger brother missing in the woods.
Rafi suffers from post traumatic stress disorder as a result of his flight from Syria. But through his friendship with Hannah he is finding a way to put his life back together:
He thinks that a long time ago he was like a glass … clear and transparent, made of invisible love – and he was filled with liquid running life, right to the brim.
… then he’d been beaten and ashamed and frightened and he was a thousand pieces scattered on a snow-covered pavement in Aleppo, an Egyptian beach, the deck of a boat, a migrant camp
But then he met a girl, loves this girl and each of those thousand pieces know their way back to their place in the glass, the cracks in him kaleidoscopes of light.
There’s much to admire in Three Hours, from the setting to the characterisation ( I was drawn particularly to Rafi) to the tightly controlled timescale. Lupton shows great skill in entering the minds of both children and adults, showing both their vulnerability and their resilience.
It’s evident too that the novel is based on some really sound research. Part of my career was spent managing crisis response so can vouch for Lupton’s description of police command procedures and the details of the school’s emergency plan.
All these factors mean Three Hours is an intense, riveting yet unsettling read. I suspect few parents with offspring still in the school system will read it and not experience a wave of anxiety.
Three Hours by Rosamund Lupton: End Notes
Rosamund Lupton became a screenwriter after leaving Cambridge University. Her debut novel Sister, was a BBC Radio 4 Book at Bedtime, a Sunday Times and New York Times bestseller.
Three Hours is her fourth novel. It’s published by Penguin Viking in hardback and e-book on January 9, 2019 . My thanks to the publisher for the free copy I received via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.