Colin Winnette’s new novel The Job of the Wasp opens with a stark, Dickensian scene: An unnamed boy narrator interviews with a stern but self-interested orphanage Headmaster. “This is not a school,” the Headmaster says, laying down the strict guidelines of the boy’s new home. “It is a temporary holding facility with mandatory educational elements.”
“It was my belief that our first meeting went well,” the boy remarks at the exchange’s conclusion, as though we had not also just witnessed the whole ominous thing. Thus begins our series of disagreements with the narrator, a theme that continues throughout Winnette’s gripping new novel.
Young adult boarding school series were popular in the 19th and early 20th centuries (Tom Brown’s School Days for boys, Malory Towers for girls) but fell out of fashion after World War II. I never came into contact with the genre in its purest form, but I have enjoyed the way modern writers adapt it. Boarding school literature traditionally carries an instructive morality, but now it’s frequently subverted to riff on a Lord of the Flies-esque decay of civilization. The Job of the Wasp reminds me of Neil Gaiman’s Dead Boy Detectives characters, introduced as neglected wards of their near-empty boarding school during the Sandman “Seasons of Mists” arc. Due to their youth and lack of life experience, they find themselves preserved at a precocious time when children mimic adult ways of speaking but don’t actually understand the logic behind what they’re saying.
This is also true of The Job of the Wasp’s unreliable, unnamed narrator. He may not be dead (yet), but he is certainly haunted, and soon implicated for murder. The narrator’s attempts at shifting blame from himself churn like the rotations of a motor, powering us through the novel and wrapping the reader in a charming puzzle. Is this kid telling the truth or is he ensnared in a web of faulty reasoning that we see so commonly in people who don’t want to face up to their crimes?
Winnette has a real gift for immersive voice, and in this regard, The Job of the Wasp resembles his previous book, Haints Stay. It might seem counterintuitive that a surreal gender-bending Western would have much in common with a Gothic mystery about murderous schoolboys, but Haints Stay, when boiled down, was about young people trying to figure out and survive their situation in the world. And that, too, is the job of the wasp.