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.
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