Dr. Edith Vane and the Hares of Crawley Hall by Suzette Mayr
Suzette Mayr’s fifth novel, Dr. Edith Vane and the Hares of Crawley Hall, is a painful yet exceptional read. Dr. Vane is a literature professor at an imaginary university in Alberta. For several years she has been writing a book based on her PhD, about Beulah Crump-Withers, a Black writer from Alberta whose history has largely been misunderstood. Dr. Vane herself is mixed-race Black and white and feels obliged to tell this story; it is the only thing that keeps her going.
Written as a composite of incidents experienced by Mayr and her academic friends, the novel starts off at the beginning of the school year with Dr. Vane seemingly in control. On the advice of her therapist she recites “I am the architect of my life” as a reassuring mantra. She has splurged so her wardrobe is more like that of her colleagues, and she’s got a plan to complete her administrative responsibilities according to deadline.
But very quickly she begins to unravel, and what lies underneath the facade is an insecure, self-deprecating, often-paranoid woman struggling to hold it all together without much support. As Dr. Vane spirals, what transpires is a painful downfall.
Dr. Vane does not have what it takes to perform her job as an academic, nor does she have the confidence to fake it. She is easily distracted by the building’s worsening conditions, which impact the health of its inhabitants, the dynamics amongst the faculty, and the politics within the institution. Her lack of friends, joke of a relationship, and distant parents collude to create pity for a character who is essentially, according to Mayr herself, a loser. As an academic and as a person, “she will always be Sisyphus, until she dies of an aneurysm.”
While many have interpreted this novel as funny, dark, and gothic (the academic institution has budget constraints and is literally crumbling), I couldn’t help but associate the story with all the women I know who have been undermined and taken for granted by their colleagues and places of work. Many of the situations and dynamics described are familiar.
For this reason, I found tension building up when I should have been laughing. But, for its writing, I couldn’t stop. Mayr’s ability to create humour with cinematic detail is rare, and lightened what felt like a heavy read. Dr. Vane is failing at life yet hopeful. She earns both our pity and attention. “Riding a wave of self-congratulation, she tops up the gas tank at the Novacrest station at the east end of the mall parking lot, the clicks of the litre indicator matching the clicks of happy retailtherapy self-righteousness. Her credit card bloats just a little bit.”
Dr. Edith Vane and the Hares of Crawley Hall is essential reading for anyone interested in the stories of women in their workplaces today.