Australian author Suzanne Leal is a lawyer experienced in child protection and refugee law, which are just two of the themes reflected in her latest novel, The Teacher’s Secret.
Leal’s first-hand experience of both means she’s not afraid to tackle the tough subjects, and she does so with pragmatic realism and sensitivity.
The Teacher's Secret
by Suzanne Leal
Published by Allen & Unwin
on June 1st 2016
Source: Allen & Unwin
Genres: Literary Fiction
It's a new school year, and Terry Pritchard, assistant principal at Brindle Public School, is glad to be back. He loves all the kids but has a soft spot for the students who are struggling and vulnerable.
By the end of the term, however, Terry finds himself forced into an early retirement, which is as shocking to the school community as it is devastating to him.
Nina Foreman, still reeling from her recent separation and complications at her previous school, jumps at the chance to transfer to Brindle Public and take over Terry's class. There she is confronted by a group of resentful and disruptive students who hold her responsible for the abrupt departure of their much loved teacher.
I need to say… I loved Terry. His commitment to the kids in his care and his concern for their wellbeing (everything else aside) is heart-warming.
Terry’s not ambitious and decided not to put in for the headmaster’s job when she took leave. As a result, the teachers, students and parents of Brindle are forced to grapple with the young and prickly Laurie Mathews.
Mathews reminded me of someone I replaced in a role years ago. She too was very young and inexperienced. On starting they were determined to flex their muscles and put their own stamp on the place, without taking any time to gauge the climate first. #SpoilerAlert in the case of my predecessor it was a BIG MISTAKE. She knew she was pissing people off but did it anyway, assuming SHE was right and things needed a shake up.
What she did was turn the entire organisation against her and the ‘office’ she was representing. It took me ages to mend the relationships between the office ‘we’ represented and the staff of that agency.
But… back to the not-so-delightful Laurie Mathews who – inexplicably DETESTS Terry and his ways. He’s everything she hates and she’s concerned about his informal manner of dealing with his students, including his role in their lives outside of the school.
Needless to say… things go poorly for Terry and readers are left wondering how well we knew him after all.
Leal introduced an array of characters in the novel and we follow a number of them. Of particular note were Nina, who’s initially teaching elsewhere until forced to make some mammoth life changes. And then there’s Rebecca – still in her homeland when we first meet her – while her academic husband’s working in Australia.
Most of the first half of the novel centred around Terry and I was a little disappointed that he ‘mostly’ floated off the radar in the latter half of the novel… though he does make a timely comeback.
The plots around Nina and Rebecca make up for Terry’s absence and ramp up once their worlds intersect.
I loved the way Leal wrote all three of these major characters. They very much inhabited the story evolving around them and I was easily drawn in. She also did a great job with the kids in the book. They felt very real and I could practically see and hear their exploits.
There’s a lot of depth in this novel. As well as the obvious issues around refugees and child safety, Leal deals with relationships, parenting, aloneness and considers the notion of family. The microcosm of the small Brindle community – its lack of pretence and soft-lighting – helped amplify those elements.
I suspect I requested this book thinking it was going to be a novel of suspense or whodunnit – ie. my bread and butter. It wasn’t but that didn’t matter as I enjoyed it nonetheless.
The Teacher’s Secret by Suzanne Leal was published in Australia by Allen & Unwin and is now available.
I received a copy of this book for review purposes.