Review

Disturbing tale of wealth and privilege

The Most Dangerous Place On Earth is the debut novel of Lindsey Lee Johnson (above).
The Most Dangerous Place On Earth is the debut novel of Lindsey Lee Johnson (above).PHOTO: MATT SAYLES

American schools have long been described as snakepits for children learning to find their place in the world, no thanks to the savage social hierarchies in place.

Add money and Snapchat to the mix and any latent cruelty in these young adults is magnified.

It is this perilous, modern adolescence that author Lindsey Lee Johnson explores in her debut novel, The Most Dangerous Place On Earth.

Set in an affluent San Francisco suburb and spread over five years, it tells the story of eight students as they navigate their growing-up years following a classmate's suicide at age 13.

The kids drive Lexuses and BMWs, and have bank accounts, not allowances. They include Ryan, the football star who gets all the girls; Abigail, who rattles off discussion points effortlessly, but passionlessly; and Calista, a hippie misfit who used to be one of the popular girls.

  • FICTION


  • The Most Dangerous Place On Earth is the debut novel of Lindsey Lee Johnson (above).

    The Most Dangerous Place On Earth is the debut novel of Lindsey Lee Johnson (above).PHOTO: MATT SAYLES

    THE MOST DANGEROUS PLACE ON EARTH

    By Lindsey Lee Johnson

    Random House/ Paperback/ 268 pages/ $27.90/ Books Kinokuniya/3.5/5 stars

All are complicit in Tristan Bloch's death - they mercilessly bullied him online or stood idly by.

Their vignettes - each of their point of view is seen only once before the next chapter takes on another's - are interspersed with Molly Nicoll's, a young teacher so desperate to connect with them that she remains ignorant of their crime and fails to see how broken they are.

Some may lament the lack of opportunities to know these characters more intimately, but the fleeting glimpse of each student's struggle is a perfect echo of his loneliness.

Many of the parents neglect their children, stepping in only to get them out of serious trouble, like one who pulls strings to enrol his drug- fuelled son into an expensive rehabilitation centre, instead of going to jail.

One heartbreaking description is a list of expensive things Abigail does not want, but buys in the hope that her workaholic parents would notice, such as $500 black satin lingerie. She eventually finds solace in a married teacher and, in a stomach-churning turn of events, sleeps with him.

In this way, Johnson makes a subtle point about how immense wealth distorts - even hampers - the transition from child to adult.

For one thing, the students end up detached from the world the rest of us inhabit (one class fails to grasp the concept of poverty in Rwanda). While bullying has always existed on schoolgrounds, privilege shields the perpetrators from anything more than a slap on the wrist.

The students end up confronting their varying degrees of guilt over Tristan's death without guidance. By the end of the book, each has formed his own plan to escape from his cloistered, prosperous life, most of them unlikely to be touted as a path to follow.

It is a challenging and disturbing book.

Readers are left to ponder questions such as whether immense wealth, coupled with intermittent, interventionist parenting, will rob children like them of any semblance of agency and a shot at happiness.

If you like this book, read: Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng (Penguin, 2014, $19.94, Books Kinokuniya). Set in 1970s small- town Ohio, a Chinese-American family must cope with the secrets that come tumbling out after a daughter's body is found in the local lake.

Rachel Au-Yong

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 24, 2017, with the headline 'Disturbing tale of wealth and privilege'. Print Edition | Subscribe