School steeped in small-town complexities
In a small town such as Brindle, on a peninsula somewhere in NSW (this is ‘‘league country’’), generations reproduce themselves, but parochialism brings stability at a cost. In the case of Mel Johnson, happily married to Adam, a local builder, “Brindle pulls her back until she is forced to give in to it”.
For Sid, in his 60s and long-term general assistant at the local primary school, it is “strange to think of young Melissa Saunders as a wife and mother”.
This is the comfortably organised small com- munity whose upheaval Suzanne Leal depicts in her second novel, The Teacher’s Secret. Alternating between the points of view and memories of seven characters, Leal begins with Terry Pritchard, whose distant past provides the novel’s title. He is married, childless, 57 years old, a former carpenter whose 18 years teaching at the same school have left his enthusiasm undimmed: he “looked forward to the first day of the term the ways the kids look forward to the first day of the holidays”.
As the long summer holiday ends, Terry and his female colleagues at Brindle Public are about to be introduced to their acting principal for a year.
The doctrinaire, disruptive outsider is the young education department bureaucrat Laurie Mathews, formerly of the Child Protection Unit (work that persuaded her that all those accused of crimes against children, almost all of them men, were guilty). Her career change, notwithstanding a belief that “there’s something messy about a school”, is no doubt prompted by ambition, although here and elsewhere Leal’s portrayal is underdone.
We have to infer what damage lies behind Laurie’s lonely self-righteousness, a reverence for “systems” and a lack of empathy. Soon enough she is given a pretext to act. Against reg-