Updated: Aug 22, 2019
After the Hole is a short novel, one you could read in a couple of hours, and then spend another mulling it over. It's a simple story, really: five sixth formers are locked underground to escape a Welsh hiking trip and to take part in their friend Martyn's social experiment to get to know each other better. Only when the three days are up, no one comes back to get them out.
If you haven't seen the theatrical adaptation of After The Hole, well, shame on you. Once a staple of Channel 4's subsidiary channels, The Hole has fallen out of favour - possibly because it's now 17 years old. If you haven't seen it, I'd highly recommend reading the book before watching the film. Having seen the film (numerous times) I had a lot of preconceptions about the novel, which, ultimately, left me a little frustrated and confused. The true events in After the Hole are only hinted at, mentioned almost off-hand in the epilogue, whereas The Hole offers a much more satisfying depiction of what happened. After the Hole is primarily a character study, an exercise not in how protagonist Liz is perceived, but how she would like others to perceive her.
"In the last Easter term, before the Hole, life was bright and good at Our Glorious School," is the opening sentence of the novel, and I was intrigued by how loaded it was with interpretation. Knowing film-Liz, the statement sounds ironic, the typical sarcastic comment from a cynical adolescent. However, we find later that novel-Liz has a pathological tendency to romanticise, and so perhaps this presentation of a picture-perfect school-life is the first clue that Liz might not be an entirely reliable narrator.
It's a confusing read at first, with events in the Hole related in third person - but from Mike's point of view - interspersed with first-person musings as the 'author' (revealed to be Liz) takes breaks from her writing to enjoy a perfect summer: she swims in the stream, walks with her boyfriend (Mike) who tells her quite regularly that he loves her, and, less idyllically, has awkward encounters with other "survivors".
In After the Hole, the underground party is surprisingly innocent. Five sixth formers, both boys and girls, are secreted away from the world for three days, and although they occasionally drink alcohol, they typically sit around getting to know each other. It feels unrealistic, but, of course, that's all part of Liz's narrative. There's another female character, Alex, who isn't present in the film (in The Hole, Keira Knightley's Frankie represents both Frankie and Alex), and the Martyn character is quite different from his movie portrayal. In The Hole, Martyn is a loner: clever and disdainful, but apparently isolated from his peers. In After the Hole, however, he is depicted as a god among men: his girlfriend Lisa says, "It felt good that I'd just met the most envied boy in the school, and he'd said he wanted to talk to me." She adds, "Because it was so difficult not to be ... swept along, by him ... I really wanted to be that popular, that liked."
There are some stilted speech tags that can make the prose uncomfortable:
"'Anyone want some?' she asked happily. The others looked at her.
'What is it?' Geoff asked suspiciously.
'Turkish Delight,' returned Frankie."
Similarly, some of the character's speech doesn't ring natural: "Mike laughed quietly. 'And I shall eat and eat and eat,' he said, feeling a silly excitement tingling inside him. 'I shall order mountains of food.'" And although it's a little jarring for the reader, it's worth remembering that this novel was written when Guy Burt was only eighteen, on his gap year before university, and so I'm sure he can be forgiven for some less-than perfect writing. Plus, these are Liz's recollections, and it doesn't seem so unlikely that she would have Mike speak like that.
It's not a great novel, but it's intriguing. Read the book first to get a sense of who Liz is, and then watch the film to see how events truly unfolded.