Graham Gardner

Inventing Elliot

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Inventing Elliot Summary

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Inventing Elliot is the debut novel from Graham Gardner, first published in the UK in 2003. It’s a young adult fiction novel about a teenage boy who decides to reinvent himself at a new school. But that reinvention might lead him down a dark path towards cruelty and bullying. It deals with themes of identity, morality, and how our choices affect us. Gardner is a librarian and an academic researcher.

At the beginning of the novel, 14-year-old Elliot Sutton is struggling. He has been a frequent target of bullying at school. He has faced multiple violent beatings. Then his father, too, suffers a violent attack. He is beaten, robbed, and sustained trauma and injuries to his brain. Though he lives, he is not the same man. He doesn’t work and instead sits in front of the TV all day, listless and silent. It is left to Elliot’s mother to pick up the pieces. She finds a job to support the family financially. However, they are forced to pack their bags and squeeze into a smaller apartment on the other side of the city. As a result, Elliot changes schools.

As Elliot prepares to attend his new school, Holminster High, he decides he needs to change himself so he will no longer be a target for bullies. His goal is to be totally unremarkable and go unnoticed by everyone. He decides to conceal his family’s lack of money by using his savings to purchase a new school uniform himself, rather than settling for something second-hand. He cuts and styles his hair to look trendier. Now, he hopes, he will no longer look like a “loser.”

He also changes his behavior, hiding his feelings and projecting apathy at all times. He fears that if he shows his true self, he will face bullying and violence again. And Elliot’s plan seems to work. Rather than getting labeled as a loser at Holminster, he impresses fellow students. He performs well at swimming and is no longer labeled as a loser by the school jocks. He witnesses bullying, and identifies with the victims, but doesn’t speak out or stand up for them. He is too afraid of making himself a target once more.

Gradually, Elliot learns about a secret school group known as the Guardians. They are a violent gang who rule the school behind the scenes. Taking inspiration from George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, they operate a secret network of spies and informants to keep students in line. They decide who will be bullied at the school and who will carry out the bullying.

One such target is a boy named Ben. Despite Elliot’s fear of being found out, he secretly befriends Ben, helping the boy after he is beaten. The two bond over shared interests in photography and swimming. However, Elliot cannot make this friendship public; he fears he will be “outed” as a loser and become a victim alongside Ben. The two boys keep their friendship a secret, though Ben is reluctant about it.

Then, to Elliot’s surprise, the Guardians single him out as a possible future member of the group. They invite him to join, but to be initiated he must select a victim to bully.
He is conflicted: becoming a member would guarantee his safety. But he is still afraid he will be found out as a weakling, as someone who is afraid of them. His other option is to tell on the group to the headmaster. He is depressed, unsure of what to do. And he has little support from his parents—his mother is busy, always working, and his father is barely responsive. By now, he has been hiding his real self for so long, he is not sure who he really is or what he should do.

Then, Elliot meets a girl, Louise, in his English class. He develops a crush on her, and they bond over their shared love of books. She becomes a needed source of support for Elliot: she tells him that Orwell’s book is not simply about power and intimidation by a shadowy government network. To her, the book is about resistance. It is about the protagonist Winston’s refusal to give in and conform in the moments before he is overpowered.

Through this alternative interpretation of the book, Elliot sees a way out: he does not have to join the Guardians. He realizes that what matters in life are the choices he makes—even when he is afraid. He decides to inform the headmaster about the Guardians and their activities. He realizes that despite his efforts to hide who he is, to destroy the “old” Elliot who was a victim, his old self still exists. He is still afraid, but he realizes he is also strong—his old self is still alive, after “all [his] efforts.”

Inventing Elliot was translated into more than 10 languages and became a worldwide bestseller. Reviewers drew comparisons to Lord of the Flies and The Chocolate War. A review in the Guardian praised the book’s take on the popular subject of school bullying, noting that every conversation feels “exactly right.”