Atlantic £12.99 (193pp) £11.69 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
Ms. Hempel Chronicles, By Sarah Shun-lien Bynum
Friday 08 January 2010
Beatrice Hempel, the main protagonist of Sarah Shun-lien Bynum's beguiling second novel, is a novice teacher and not, she thinks, a very good one. She sets pop quizzes because they're less work to mark than essays, wonders if it's appropriate to laugh when her students fart and courts popularity by feeding them chocolate, and dismissing them early on Fridays.
But she's also open, youthfully permissive and given to moments of subversive inspiration, such as setting her class an assignment to write their own reports. Ostensibly, this is a high-minded exercise in response to a book they're studying, allowing students to "give voice to their own visions of themselves". It's clear to the reader that Beatrice's main motivation for the task is pure self-interest. She wants to avoid having to write the reports herself.
Bynum tells us a lot about Ms Hempel in this short episode, as she does in every chapter (several were published as short stories), fleshing out her central character's life, relationships and personality. From the childhood games Beatrice and her younger brother play, not so much with as at each other – "servant": where she treats him as one, or "cat burglar", when he dresses in black and creeps as far as possible into her bedroom without being caught – through the way Beatrice's perception of her father evolves after he dies and she matures, to her unwarranted sense of betrayal at her mother and younger sister's plan to turn their house into a B&B. Everything builds into a complex, precise and impressively-nuanced portrait. Other characters and their surroundings are sketched and shadowy: we never quite get to know them.
Alongside quiet observational wit, Bynum uses lack of mutual understanding as a source of traditional bawdy farce: a joke about the inadequacy of crotchless panties for anal sex left me wondering if it was appropriate to laugh. Beatrice's attempt to explain to her older, Sinophile head of history why adding her mother's family name to her surname might be a bad idea felt funnier: "'Ms. Ho-Hempel,' she said. 'That's what they would call me?' Mr Meacham nodded happily. 'But'– How could she put this? 'Won't there be a lot of jokes?' He didn't follow."
Very little of the action happens centre-stage. Most major events – including Beatrice's treatment for ADHD as a teenager, her parents' separation and father's death, the making and breaking of an engagement – are mentioned, rather than played out. On the one hand, this makes the novel feel a tad static at times. On the other, Bynum has the confidence to trust her audience: there's clarity, depth and enough space in this stillness to allow the reader's imagination a satisfyingly free rein.
Lisa Gee's 'Stage Mum' is published by Hutchinson
Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants
Oscars 2015 Bringing you all the news from the 87th Academy Awards
TV ReviewThe intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron
Film Hollywood's new leading lady talks about her Ramsay Street days
Oscar voter speaks outfilm
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 The black and blue dress: Makers considering a white and gold version
- 2 Husband and wife die holding hands within hours of each other after 67 years of marriage
- 3 What color is The Dress, white and gold or blue and black? An eyewitness gives a definitive answer
- 4 The remarkable archaeological underwater discovery that could open up a new chapter in the study of European and British prehistory
- 5 Madonna claims jokes about her age tantamount to racism: 'No one would dare to say a degrading remark about being black'
Seinfeld is laughing all the way to the bank: TV show generates $3.1bn in repeat fees since final episode
Eddie Redmayne in The Danish Girl: First look at Oscar winner as transgender artist
Blade Runner sequel: Harrison Ford confirmed to return with Denis Villeneuve directing
All fiction follows one of six basic storylines, according to new research
House of Cards season 3 premiere, review: Has Frank Underwood gone soft?
Oscars 2015: Birdman beats Boyhood as Eddie Redmayne and Patricia Arquette win big - as it happened
New theory could prove how life began and disprove God
Half of Ukip voters say they are prejudiced against people of other races
'Cash for access' scandal: Sir Malcolm Rifkind says 'unrealistic' for MPs to live on £67,000 salary
This is what it's like to be dead, according to a guy who died for a bit
'Jihadi John': CAGE representative storms off Sky News accusing Kay Burley of Islamophobia