Sunday, September 11, 2016

The English Teacher by Lily King

A sub genre I thoroughly enjoy consists of novels about English teachers and professors.  I stumbled on a copy of The English Teacher by Lily King, after reading her latest novel, Euphoria.  This is her second novel, and as I write this, I am awaiting delivery of her first. 

Vida Avery is a single mother with a son, Peter, who is about 14.  She teaches at a school located in a mansion previously owned by her grandfather.  When the story opens, she has been at the school for awhile, and the headmaster admires her, but many of her students think she is too hard.  Vida has a dark secret she has shared with no one.  She begins dating, and accepts a proposal of marriage on an impulse.  The marriage is a failure almost from the start.  She begins drinking, and her colleagues begin to notice.  Her husband pleads with her to open up, but she refuses.  He begins to lose patience, and the couple starts a series of heated arguments.

Ever the English teacher, she spins a life for some waste collectors she has never seen.  King writes, “The got behind a garbage truck.  Vida lit a cigarette as the two men in back leapt from the runner, separated to opposite sides of the street, hurled bags three at a time up and over the truck’s backside, and hopped back on just as the truck jerked ahead.  White steam streamed from their nostrils.  They wore no gloves and drank no coffee and yet they seemed warm and full of energy.  They’d probably been up since three, and soon they would be done.  They’d go to a diner for lunch – Reubens, French fries, a few beers.  Then they’d sleep – at a room apartment on Water Street, their muscles tired, their bellies full, their minds thoughtless as cows.  The truck stopped again, and the man on the left, having caught Vida’s covetous eye, grinned at her.  She glanced quickly away in what felt like fright.  The truck veered off then, but the acknowledgement made her uneasy for several more blocks, as if a character in a book has addressed her by name” (38).  All these seemingly innocuous scenes connect to clues as to her past.

The faculty are a curious set of characters.  They seem to go about their business, like whispers in the background.  Only one of the male teachers shows any interest in Vida.  King writes, “They had, every one of them, misunderstood her entire life.  She had never yearned to marry as these people apparently thought she had.  Brick Howells was hardly the only person to have attempted the fix up.  How many times had she accepted a dinner invitation from one of them, only to find in their living room some recently devastated fellow wiping his palms on his slacks?  You have so much to offer, she was often told, as if she had a tray of cigarettes and candy perpetually strapped to her waist.  But these setups had stopped a few years back.  Vida realized now, from their relieved, astonished expressions, that they had all given up” (60-61).

An interesting aspect of the story is Vida’s use of works of literature she was teaching as thickly veiled connections to her secret.  One day, she fails to show up for school, and Peter finds her face down in a field.  He manages to drag her to her car, put her in the back seat, and drives off with or without even a learner’s permit.  He drives to California to see Vida’s sister.  This suspenseful novel is riveting without being horrifying, and only at the end does the story explode.

--Chiron, 8/31/16

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