The Teacher’s Secret by Suzanne Leal – a tale of characters in their community

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This book is a both a tale of unravelling private worlds, and tightening of tension. It is a story of people who are discovering their worst fears realised, as well as those around them changing. It is the story of several people, all doing their best, or at least what they normally do, only to meet challenges which makes them revaluate everything. This is not an apocalypse, more of an upheaval; a fascinating picture of various members of a community finding out what it life can be about when certain things change. It is an intimate story in many ways; the tiny details of daily life take on huge significance when in the hands of a confident writer, yet Leal has not been afraid to take on the big themes of betrayal, great love and loss.

The narrative of this book is pushed on in the day to day stories of several characters. Thus time goes on with the people of the book experiencing whole days, an hour, as memorable times. Terry is the first teacher we see; a teacher who has been at Brindle Public school for so long that he knows each classroom, each inch of the playground. More importantly, he knows the children, even taught some of their parents. He has been there for so long that he knows the backgrounds, recognises the problems, knows the challenges they face. He sees the possibilities of these children, but also their limitations. Laurie is the new acting principal, who from the first moments of term is determined to “Reorder, refile, rearrange”, to organise the school in logical ways, to observe all possible regulations, even in the face of what has been working well in many people’s eyes for years. It is a fair way into the novel before we learn something of her inner life; while each character gets their own section everything is in the third person, carefully described feelings, reactions to the attitudes and actions of others. Nina is a support teacher, with a husband who seems frustrated, yet she does her best for children who struggle more than others. She senses that all is not well, but she feels unequal to the blow when it comes, as she realises that nothing is fixed. Mel is determined, strong, capable, appreciating her abilities. Sid, Joan and others are watchers, knowing their routines, knowing that there must be more, but unsure how to enter into them.

This is a confidently written book, as many characters are held together yet apart, their progress or challenges become apparent gradually, with only limited points of dramatic change, of secrets revealed. It is a competently written picture of a community with stories overlapping, and as such can feel claustrophobic. I feel that it sometimes loses some of its drive as it hops between characters, as I wanted to know what would happen with Terry, for example, rather than been diverted to Joan. It is a technically interesting way to build up the story of several people with in the community, but sometimes it loses focus for me, especially with the introduction of Rebecca’s s’ story. This is all meant to add an extra dimension, a new layer of story and character, but it can be confusing. Altogether this is a fascinating book of its type, full of well-drawn characters and telling the story of disturbing secrets to great effect, and I am grateful to be offered a review copy and to comment on this clever novel.

Of course, the hot weather in the background of this Australian novel is in sharp contrast to the snow outside! Derby has finally succumbed to the snow, and our drive and garden are now full. Thankfully no one is demanding my presence elsewhere, so I can read some of the books that are piling up around me!