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29th September 2021

Campus lit: true or false?

Books editor Aileen Loftus takes a look at which campus novels accurately reflect student life, from Normal People to A Secret History
Campus lit: true or false?
Photo: Georgina Davidson @ The Mancunion

University campuses have long been a favourite setting for authors, from Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis to On Beauty by Zadie Smith. This may be because they are places of learning and ideas. Or perhaps it is because there are so many young people embarking on new adventures away from the watchful eyes of their parents. 

Often campus novels are concerned with the lives of lecturers and academics. So how many of these books are an accurate reflection of student life at university? Are any of them a helpful read for freshers starting at The University of Manchester?

Here’s a (non-comprehensive) list of books to read to get you started, and a list of books to avoid when searching for a reflection of true-to-life experiences. 


Snowflake by Louise Nealon

Louise Nealon’s debut novel Snowflake follows Debbie, a student in her first year studying English Literature at Trinity College Dublin, as she balances her home life with her new university world. Nealon accurately writes about fear of making friends, fear of speaking in lectures and about the culture shock of commuting to Dublin from her family’s dairy farm in County Kildare.

Starter for Ten by David Nicholls

Starter for Ten is set in 1985, as protagonist Brian begins his first year at university. As the title hints at, Brian’s ambition has always been to appear on University Challenge. David Nicholls’s debut is funny and effortlessly readable. It also still rings true, even if a few moments feel a little dated. 

Normal People by Sally Rooney

While Conversations with Friends and Beautiful World, Where are you both offer glimpses of university experience, it is Normal People that gives the most sustained depiction of student life. Marianne and Connell need little to no introduction. As students, they both experience feelings of loneliness, isolation and social anxiety at times, and Rooney writes this with poignant accuracy. The key lesson any reader can take away, however, is that clear communication with those you love is always a good place to start.


The Secret History by Donna Tartt

Donna Tartt’s debut novel follows a tight-knit group of six students attending a small Vermont liberal arts college. They would seem a little out of place in Manchester, where on the whole you’ll find your fellow students are less exclusive and generally don’t speak much Ancient Greek. Oh yeah, and there is considerably less murder.

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh

In Brideshead Revisited in 1923, protagonist Charles Ryder is reading history at Oxford. At university Charles is quickly distracted from his studies by his friendship with Lord Sebastian Flyte, who introduces Charles to his eccentric, hedonistic and rich friends. Friendships at university do often begin in unusual and unplanned ways, and Charles and Sebastian meet after Sebastian drunkenly throws up through Charles’s open window. This wouldn’t be unheard of in Owen’s Park, though the chances of being overwhelmed by flowers and given an invitation to lunch by way of an apology is probably less likely.

The Secret Commonwealth by Philip Pullman

The Secret Commonwealth is the second volume of Philip Pullman’s planned trilogy The Book of Dust. The story is set ten years after the conclusion of the original His Dark Materials trilogy. Lyra is now a student at St Sophia’s College Oxford. She and Pan are dealing with the student angst of losing the fun and imagination of childhood, and it causes them to drift apart. That’s probably where the similarities with real student life end, and daemons, botany and Dust take over. Manchester may be magical, but if you notice your pet talking to you, perhaps you need to go to bed earlier.

While you can turn to novels for advice, no book can truly prepare you for your own experiences at university, which will be unique, impossible to predict and maybe even novel worthy.

Aileen Loftus

Aileen Loftus

Books Editor

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