There is no shortage of books about school shootings: We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver; Jodi Picoult’s Nineteen Minutes. What makes Rosamund Lupton’s Three Hours more unusual, perhaps, is that it is set, not in the US, which had almost one shooting a week last year – but in Britain, in the usually safe environment of a leafy private school in the south of England.
The book begins with a vivid image of a bullet smashing into a glass case “by the headmaster’s head”. A gunman – or men – has entered the school grounds and headmaster Matthew Marr is forced to activate the school’s emergency plan in an attempt to evacuate the children.
The alarm is initially raised by Rafi Bukhari, a child refugee from Syria, who is left roaming the school grounds at the time of the shooting, separated from his girlfriend, Hannah and in search of his eight-year-old brother, Basi. It is Rafi who recognises the sound of an explosion in the school’s woods. A protégé of the headmaster, Rafi is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder after a journey which saw him and Basi travel alone to a camp, where they became the beneficiaries of a scholarship to the school.
Other school staff initially believe that what Rafi has heard is a result of his PTSD, or a mistake: as one teacher puts it, “firecrackers... someone pissing around.” However, the situation escalates and the pupils and staff remaining in the building are forced into hiding and endure the most terrifying three hours of their lives.
Hannah, trapped in the school library, is publicly lauded as a heroine after her efforts to save the injured headmaster are broadcast live on TV via a mobile phone link. Meanwhile, worried parents wait in a local leisure centre, where they discover things about their children which surprise and shock them – and their own prejudices and fears are revealed. One boy, Jamie, is missing after leaving the theatre to pick up a prop from the CDT room, reducing his mother, Beth, to a state of panic.
The subject of school shootings is perhaps more raw in Scotland than elsewhere in the UK, coming 23 years after the Dunblane disaster, when 16 primary school pupils and one teacher were killed by a lone gunman, an incident which sparked major changes to handgun laws. Yet Lupton’s ability to handle the topic is subtle and clever. As well as a gripping thriller, this is a story of people: the good, bad and the surprising. Jane Bradley
Three Hours, by Rosamund Lupton, Viking, £14.99