“So what’s it actually like, studying at Oxford?”
After the awkward cough and shuffle that accompanies any admission of our alma mater, I am sure it is a question we have all been asked. My next step is always a brief exposition of the college system (that is both incomplete and inaccurate) and a poor joke about drunkenly stumbling on cobbles before I feebly trail out with the old lie: “It’s just like any other uni really…”
It is rare, then, to find fiction that perfectly encapsulates the contemporary Oxford experience. Brideshead Revisited may still be a handbook for students of Christ Church, but it is about as far from most of our lives asTrainspotting is. The Last Enchantments, however, manages to do just this, grippingly and with heart-wrenching pathos. There are gems of Oxford life within Finch’s first foray into a genre other than crime fiction: the frequent trips to Purple Turtle, the permanent backdrop of intellectual struggle and a cameo appearance at Hassan’s kebab van struck a particularly fond chord within me. Beyond the small jumps of excitement that come from reading about places that also form the background to one’s own life, Finch captures themes that resonate with Oxford students and then reflects them with a maturity, eloquence and sparkling humour that is both uncommon and addictive. In particular, the daily littleness of life amongst the dreaming spires, the feeling of unreality that occurs both when reflecting on home life from Oxford and thinking of Oxford from the shires, and the frequent meaningless romances that emerge from College life are expounded in light, beautiful prose; profound and yet not pretentious.
The Last Enchantments is a novel about youth and its loss, about love, about life. The protagonist, Will Baker (whom one can’t help but suspect is an image of Finch himself), is an American graduate student standing on the threshold of adulthood and placed before decisions about romance, career and nation that will profoundly shape his life. The choices are ones that are familiar and yet intensely moving: his long term and dependable partner Alison, left at home in the states, is placed in contrast to his British love, the beautiful and enigmatic Sophie and Baker’s lucrative career with a family friend in the city, the passion and excitement of the campaign trail and the ethereal promise of an academic grant pull him in different directions that cross oceans. Most of all, the novel presents the foreboding sense that, in one’s early 20s, one’s decisions begin to have serious and long term ramifications. Oxford is almost the perfect setting for this regretful leaving behind of youth: One line particularly resonates, when the university is given its perfect epitaph: “so much of being at Oxford is the stretch of days behind and before you, the feeling of shelter inside that great mammoth body, the security of it”. It is no coincidence that Le Grand Meaulnes is referenced early on in the novel; The Last Enchantments contains precisely the same sense of nostalgia and the fitful end of adolescence. The sense of contemplative melancholy at the end is overpoweringly sad, and a fitting end to a novel that not only perfectly encapsulates being a student of Oxford, but also beautifully expresses the feeling of no longer being young.