After being shuttled from one institution to another, Peter, an orphaned teenager and the novel’s narrator, is unaccountably transferred to exclusive Biehl’s Academy near Copenhagen. The school is rigidly controlled by precise schedules and a stringent code of conduct. Compliance to countless rules is enforced through severe physical and psychological punishment.
At the Academy, Peter meets Katarina, who was orphaned by her mother’s death from cancer and her father’s subsequent suicide. Peter also befriends August, a disturbed boy who murdered his parents after suffering years of abuse. The three orphans do not fit into the school’s elite mold and know that they have been admitted as “borderliners.” They gradually realize they are part of a sociological experiment and set out to discover its purpose.
Acting covertly in an environment where any type of interaction is prohibited, Peter and Katarina try to expose and undermine the school’s program of repression. In the process, Peter and Katarina fall in love while acting as surrogate parents to the emotionally troubled August.
Although punishment or the threat of expulsion are the primary means of control, time itself is the instrument by which control is achieved. Hoeg’s principal theme is the way in which time is used as a tool to condition behavior. A substantial portion of the novel consists of an extended discourse on the nature of time—an interesting digression, but one which does little to advance the narrative. The strength of BORDERLINERS is Hoeg’s bleak portrayal of the progressive pedagogy at Biehl’s Academy. This psychological thriller relies more on observations and insights than on action and resolution.
Preceded by the best-seller, SMILLA’S SENSE OF SNOW (1993), BORDERLINERS is the second of Peter Hoeg’s novels to be translated into English.