Natalie Haynes makes her fiction debut with this gripping page-turner, a novel I simply had to read in just a few exhilarating sittings.
It follows the story of Alex, a young woman upping sticks and taking a job at Rankeillor, a Pupil Referral Unit in Edinburgh. The majority of the children here have been expelled from previous schools and their parents or guardians write to Rankeillor for help. They seek to take the children that don’t function well elsewhere and aim to get them back into mainstream education.
Alex is told a class of fourth years will most likely prove the most difficult for her, and most of the story is about her efforts with these five children. She’s not exactly experienced in the field, with her first day involving teaching her first class since she got her PGCE three years ago. She’s apprehensive about the new job, feeling she was only given the role because of her friendship with Robert.
She’s living in a one bedroom flat with very little on display apart from a television, a digital radio, a table, a desk and an engagement ring. She’s consumed by a huge amount of grief following the loss of her fiance, something she feels prevents her from giving a hundred percent to her students.
The children had been taught art therapy before their teacher went off on maternity leave and Alex has been drafted in to teach dramatherapy. Despite some initial grievances the children become involved in the class, opting to study Greek tragedies over Shakepeare or anything else.
Natalie Haynes delivers a compelling account of the tension in the classroom. The children are given an outlet in the Greek tragedies in which to talk about their emotions and difficulties. The teacher asks questions about fate, destiny, revenge, betrayal and whether people would be willing to sacrifice themselves for others and these things play out in the story of Alex and the children as the narrative unfolds.
In addition to everything else, the novel serves as a very fine account of how grief, loss and obsession can take over lives. It’s a skilfully constructed, hugely impressive debut.
The Amber Fury will be published by Corvus on March 6.