For me, one of the most charming reads of the year: Ms Hempel Chronicles by Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, a magical collection of interlinked stories, à la Olive Kitteridge, only where Ms Kitteridge, ex-scourge of a classroom left me with a sour taste in my mouth, Ms Hempel was a sheer delight.
Beatrice Hempel is in her late twenties and has been teaching English literature to the seventh grade for four years. She’s not a great teacher, setting pop quizzes to ensure herself the least amount of homework to mark, oversharing in class and making cheap bids for popularity by offering the kids chocolate and early dismissal at home time. But she’s intoxicated by her children, by their enthusiasm, their untapped potential and their creativity, even for mischief. It doesn’t seem so long ago to Beatrice that she was a child herself, a slightly ragged one, with a penchant for punk and an inability to string her arguments together in essays, and she doesn’t feel she’s really made much progress since then. The stories in Ms Hempel Chronicles are often tracking this uncertain fault line, between the powerful desires and aspirations of childhood and the twilight zone of their disappointment that is early adulthood.
What made this collection so great for me was the writing, which is outstanding. Whether it’s the students being described:
‘Edward Ashe, former piano prodigy, who by eighth grade had settled into a catatonic state interrupted only by moments of silent, unrelieved terror when she approached his desk. He had the biggest eyes she had ever seen on a boy, and he would widen them like a camera aperture on a gloomy day to suggest innocence and surprise’
or whether it’s the teaching:
‘The curriculum was always marching on, relentlessly: the scrambling dash from one unit to the next, the ancient Egyptians melting into the ancient Greeks, the blur of check marks and smiley faces, the hot rattling breath of the photocopier, book reports corrected shakily on the bus, the eternal night of parent-teacher conferences, dizzy countdowns to every holiday, and the dumb animal pleasure of rest. One could be quite unhappy and never have a chance to know it’
there is an exquisite accuracy and truthfulness to the prose which makes it a pure pleasure. There’s also a gentleness to the vision, an inbuilt sense of amusement that settles a benign air across those adolescent years of bitter bewilderment. Ms Hempel’s students are altogether more charming, even the bad ones, than your average hostile, fearsome teenager. But that’s okay, indeed, it is an intrinsic part of the book’s unique voice that there is a measure of fairy tale in the mix. Sarah Shun-lien Bynum is brilliant at evoking a certain kind of childhood perspective, one that sees the potential for grandeur, curiosity and magic in all it surveys.
Don’t come to this book expecting a plot, though; there isn’t one. Instead we come at Ms Hempel’s life from a number of angles: as she sits watching the school talent show, quietly wishing she were on the stage, as she takes the children on school trips to the beach and to a mock-up of an early settlement; as she enviously views another young teacher, who took a year off after nearly suffering a breakdown and who has returned pregnant and ready to abandon teaching altogether. We also get glimpses of her own childhood, domineering her younger brother, Calvin (a brilliantly evocative account of the weird things siblings do together) and of what remains of her childhood when she returns home for her birthday – not enough, that is to say, now her father has died and her mother wants to turn the family home into a B & B. The very last chapter pushes the fast forward button to find her beyond her teaching career, bumping into one of her former students now grown up.
This isn’t quite a perfect book; the different perspectives on Ms Hempel call for some awkward mental image adjustment – I thought at first she was older than she is meant to be, and halfway through we find out she has a Chinese mother. Then the chapter recounting her doubts about her fiancé veered into the territory of sexuality that sounded the only false note. The things that happen, the events that would normally provide the focus of the narrative, a broken engagement, the death of her father, are mentioned so casually in passing that if you blink you can miss them. But really that doesn’t matter. This is a narrative that glorifies the stasis-in-frantic-motion that is childhood, where everything is metamorphosing and yet so much in terms of hopes and fears remains the same. I found it a wholly endearing book about the piercing nostalgia we feel for all that is unappreciated and invisible in our childhood until it is outgrown. It made me smile from the first page to the last.