Book review: The Amber Fury by Natalie Haynes


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The Amber Fury, the debut novel by Natalie Haynes, combines various modish literary genres. There is a splash of psychological thriller: our main narrator and heroine, Alex Morris, is traumatised by a mysterious calamity from her recent past, and moves from London to Edinburgh to piece her life back together. Hired as a teacher of troubled teens, she wanders into a feisty Young Adult novel, populated by five adolescents who toss swearwords and hair with equal aplomb. This central plot reboots the Michelle Pfeiffer movie Dangerous Minds, only Alex jettisons Bob Dylan in favour of Greek tragedy, and so we enter Madeline Miller territory.

Haynes, an Independent columnist whose career has combined its own heady mix of comedy, journalism, broadcasting, and book judging, takes her classics seriously. The novel mimics the theatrical five-act form, a Euripidean emphasis on emotion and female protagonists, as well as familiar themes: fate, revenge, violence, love – both betrayed and thwarted.

Such an homage would be hubristic for any writer let alone a debutant, and while Haynes carries it off, the translation from stage to page wobbles occasionally. Despite the verve hinted at by its title, The Amber Fury takes a little time to get going. Haynes’s opening feels tentative, afraid to reveal too many secrets too quickly, but equally keen not to lose clarity in establishing her premise. There are moments of fussily clumsy exposition – such as when Alex’s mentor, Robert, conveniently parrots her life story back to her.

The sluggish start is shaken off when Alex encounters her unruly students. Where Haynes’s prose had tiptoed, her dialogue runs and jumps. The students’ banter is whip smart and vulgar. Alex’s initial helplessness is conveyed convincingly enough to make you wonder how much pedagogical humiliation Haynes has suffered first hand.

The story is compelling, but a little confusing. Haynes aims at two seemingly contradictory targets. On the one hand, she strives to create a mood of nerve-jangling suspense: who did what to whom and why. On the other, she wants to approximate the divinely decreed destinies of Greek tragedy in a 21st-century setting. The former is relatively easy to accomplish in the theatre, no matter how familiar the play or how bad the production: the revelations of, say, Oedipus Rex may not be news to the audience, but they will be to the characters themselves. This theatrical immediacy is inevitably sacrificed in Alex’s dominant retrospective narration, which is more attuned to those ideas of fate and individual responsibility. The antidote is a journal written by Alex’s favourite student Melody Pearce, whose precision as a diarist would put Samuel Pepys to shame. But, by and large, characters have to play hide and seek with the reader to keep the facts of the mystery alive. Conveniently, neither Alex nor her usually infallible lawyer, Lisa Meyer, refers to the adolescent perpetrator of the second crime by name.

It is Haynes’s characters who carry the day. Alex is a convincingly understated heroine. Our glimpses through Mel’s diary of her enigmatic expressions of grief only increases our sympathy. Mel too stands out as a passionate, vulnerable alternative to Alex’s wounded withdrawal from life. Her youthful, raw emotion matches the raw potential of Haynes’s ambitious first novel.