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Reflections of a working writer and reader



Borderliners by Peter Høeg

Here’s an extract:

Oscar Humlum and I had been travelling companions for a long time before we met, though without knowing it.

There was nothing strange about this. It was perfectly normal. Because, for an orphan in Denmark, everything was very strictly regulated. Across the country ran certain tunnels that were invisible; they ran alongside each other, absolutely parallel. So, when Humlum and I met, we did not talk much about the past. This silence – it was so as not to pry, but also because we knew that, in a way, we had been travelling together, even though we had not seen one another.

First one was put into a Home for Infants. One was so small, there, that one could not remember anything, but the file stated that I had been in two different ones.

After that one was put in a children’s home. Both Humlum and I had been with the Christian Foundation. I was at the Home on Peter Bang’s Vej, between the KB playing fields and Flintholm Church. Humlum was in Esbjerg. One feels as though one ought to have remembered quite a bit about that time, but the only thing one remembered was the storytelling, and the punishment for soiling one’s mouth with swearwords – the matron, Sister Ragna, pushed one’s head down the toilet after she had used it.

One ought to have remembered more. But that was the only thing that had stuck.

They kept you for as long as they could at the children’s home. Only if they came to the conclusion that there was no alternative were you moved. There was only one kind of place to go to from there. That was to a residential assessment centre, for a limited period. I went to Brogårdsvænge in Gentofte, that was in ’66. I remember nothing about why, in the file, the matron, Sister Ragna, had written “wayward, refuses to wear plus-fours”.

That is what it says, but one remembers nothing.

One time I showed it to Humlum. It was winter, at night. We were sitting on the toilets, up against the radiator. “I remember them,” he said, “baggy pants and long checked socks. The rest of them at the school wore desert boots and Fair Isle sweaters. You didn’t have anything else, it was like your skin, it got to the stage where you wanted to rip it off, rip your skin off, or something.”

He did not say whether he too had refused.

It was all downhill from the assessment centre. Because one was older there were more places they could send one. I was put into a boarding school for children whose development does not measure up to the norm, and from there to Nødeborgård Treatment Home.
That was in ’67, I must have been ten.

Biehl’s Academy takes “normal” children and others from various institutions, with a mission to integrate them into “normal” society. Some of these “borderliners” are slow or perform well below their mental age. Others are academically sound but are traumatised for various reasons. In Katharine’s case, for example, the death of her mother followed by the suicide of her father has led to her admission to the school.

The narrator of the story is Peter, a strange child, obsessive and intelligent, with a long history of orphanages and care homes. When August is admitted into Biehl’s, he is watched over by the teachers, never allowed to move more than a foot away from the playground wall. He gasses himself on the cooker at night, just enough to be able to sleep. Peter and Katarina believe that he won’t survive school life and will be permanently institutionalised.

The school uses measurement rather than love to ‘treat’ its pupils, all personal relationships are frustrated and replaced by IQ tests and other ‘systems’. It is a version of Hell.

Everyone involved in the sadistic and damaging experiments at Biehl’s Academy – the staff, the education minister, the caretaker, their families, everyone – except the children, believe that they are defending eternal values.

The school, always reminiscent of Kafka, brings to mind other establishments from the literary canon, Dickens’ Dotheboys Hall from Nicholas Nickleby, and William Golding’s Lord of the Flies.

This is a difficult and inspiring novel, rich in meditations on the human condition. It was originally published in Denmark in 1993.

4 Responses to “Borderliners by Peter Høeg”

  1. Jim Murdoch says:

    I’m not sure I could enjoy this book. I’ve never recovered from the scene where Tom gets “roasted” in front of an open fire in ‘Tom Brown’s Schooldays’. I have no particular reason to hate institutions like that but I find I do. That said the block of text you included was interesting.

    I’ve been sent an advanced reading copy of a novel where a man gets unlawfully incarcerated in an African jail – I forget which country at the moment – and I’m a bit wary about starting that one. It’s not that I want to stick my head in the sand and pretend that stuff like this isn’t going on. I just find that it affects me more than I like and somehow fictionalised accounts get under your skin more than plain documentaries.

    jb says: Hi Jim, I know what you mean about fiction finding its way under your skin easier than documentaries. I also find fiction more powerful, but somehow have a way of dealing with it. Thick skin might be the answer. I draw the line at graphic depictions of torture or totally gratuitous violence, but otherwise I sometimes find myself reading accounts of suffering which would force me to close my eyes in real life.

  2. Carla Abellana says:

    borderline huh? sounds like a madonna song.. 🙂

  3. Heidi says:

    This is one of my favorite books. Most people haven’t heard of it. I was delighted to find your review.

  4. Jo says:

    I was incredibly moved by this book. I found his account resonant. I understood the overwhelming desire for meaningful human contact and the deep disconnect between what he was receiving from everyone around him and what he was giving. The “scientific” approach to the narration of the story really felt right to me too. Like the only way you can approach an emotional pain of that magnitude is at a forced remove. The hope and fear that he conveys in the interludes (especially when describing “the child”) are vivid.

    Great book. Still. Thanks for the review. 🙂