School steeped in small-town com­plex­i­ties

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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-

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