The Teacher's Secret:Suzanne Leal's novel of good and evil in a school

"The Teacher's Secret" by Suzanne Leal, a lawyer who brings her expertise in child protection, criminal and refugee issues to her novel.

The Teacher's Secret

The Teacher's Secret

FICTION

The Teacher's Secret

SUZANNE LEAL

ALLEN & UNWIN, $32.99

REVIEW BY DOROTHY JOHNSTON

"The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity," wrote W.B. Yeats in The Second Coming. "Full of passionate intensity" well describes Laurie Mathews, acting principal at Brindle Public School. Laurie is a zealot, convinced that her pursuit of Terry Pritchard as a child molester is both right and necessary.

Terry is the only male on the staff, a long-serving popular teacher; it is his secret that gives the novel its title. Terry is prone to self-questioning, to fears and doubts, and this enables him to empathise with his pupils, find out about their problems, and then try to help. Laurie follows the letter of the law, and this makes her blind to the complex, sometimes contradictory feelings and situations of the children in her care.

Readers do not learn Terry's secret until well into the story, and Suzanne Leal uses this suspense to good effect. There is another kind of suspense at work as well – waiting for Laurie to show a single moment of humility. The acting principal stands out against the other major characters, who bumble along, make mistakes, become victims of the mistakes and cruelty of others, and who try to make the best of things. For some, "making the best" turns out very well indeed, for The Teacher's Secret, though it has a tragic side, is not, overall, a pessimistic book.

Nina, whose husband has destroyed their marriage, finds that, after a rocky start, she might succeed as Terry's replacement. Sid, the school handyman, discovers that he's not too old to fall in love with Nina's lonely neighbour. Rebecca, who has had to flee her home in Africa, is told that she will, after all, be allowed to stay in Brindle, where her young son has already found his feet; and Mel, who became pregnant as a teenager and has never left her hometown, finds unexpected sources of satisfaction there.

These characters are all given chapters of their own, but it is the children of Brindle Public who bind them together. Leal has chosen to tell her story through the eyes of adults, but the children's predicaments are memorable, the more so for their inability to act on their own behalf. Two stand out: Bridie, whose family secret, if made public, would shatter her fragile self-confidence; and Elsie, whose mother turns up to scream abuse at her on the first day of school. It is when Terry puts his arms around Elsie to comfort her and shield her from her mother that he falls under Laurie's suspicion.

Given its multiple perspectives, The Teacher's Secret is a fast-paced novel. This is a product of suspense, and Leal's ability to take readers straight to the heart of each character's dilemma. Her style works particularly well for the children, who speak with just enough insouciant slang to make their exchanges realistic, without this slang clogging up the narrative.

Interestingly, the panel on which Leal appeared at the recent Sydney Writers Festival was titled "Things Fall Apart", another line from The Second Coming. Leal is a lawyer experienced in child protection, criminal and refugee law, who obviously knows what she is talking about when describing the impact these laws have on ordinary lives. The Teacher's Secret, an absorbing modern tale of good and evil, is her second novel.

 

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