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Picks and Pans Review: Borderliners

updated 02/13/1995 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/13/1995 01:00AM

by Peter Hoeg

An educational experiment conducted by the Danish government in the 1960s is at the center of Peter Hoeg's second novel to be translated into English. Like his first, the best-seller Smilla's Sense of Snow, Borderliners transcends borders with its intelligent and hypnotic condemnation of a society tragically at odds with its children.

After a lifetime spent in state-run institutions, Peter, a malnourished and abused 14-year-old, is transferred to Biehl's Academy, a private school in Copenhagen with an uncompromising code of discipline. The headmaster is not beyond spying, humiliating, slapping, even beating a child deaf if doing so helps maintain order. Peter is "an odd, backward pupil" who together with another orphan, Katarina, and August, a child who murdered his parents, sets out to learn why "borderliners" like himself—students who are neither well-adjusted nor altogether retarded—are enrolled here.

When first published in Denmark, Borderliners created a controversy when it was revealed that these experiments actually took place. Like a modern Charles Dickens, Hoeg clearly deplores the fate of abandoned children. Capturing their helplessness and frustration, Borderliners would be shocking even if it were not true. (Farrar Straus Giroux, $22)

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