The second book from Australian author, Suzanne Leal, is The Teacher’s Secret. Set in the small town of Brindle, it focuses on community life as it revolves around the local public school. The broad cast of characters includes teachers at the school, primary school-aged children, parents and even older community members often ignored in works of fiction.
Providing a plot summary is difficult because this is really a set of interwoven short stories, or even character studies, that only converge towards the end. In it, a popular teacher hides a shameful secret, a new principal is determined to discover it and restore order, a young mother deals with marriage failure, a refugee family seeks solace and safety, and an elderly, suddenly alone daughter finds life can start at any age.
The thrust of the narrative suspense is driven by Terry, a school teacher loved by all. His story arc begs questions about modern day propriety and systems failures. For anyone old enough to remember a time when teachers were allowed to hug their students, this will certainly pull at the heart strings.
Another thread of tension is provided by Rebecca Chuma’s story – not until the very end are the reasons for her need to flee her home made clear. This is also a nice addition from a writer with life experience working in the refugee tribunal, as it’s far from the stereotypical media representation of a refugee situation.
The third major story line is provided by Nina, a Special Ed teacher who loves her husband and three-year-old daughter, but has to watch her marriage dissolve. While it’s a common occurrence, Leal’s insight into the pain of marital breakdown, especially when it’s unwanted, is gutting.
Overall, The Teacher’s Secret is a good read. Its strengths are the beautiful, almost literary, writing and presentation of a vast tapestry of richly drawn characters. Its weaknesses are perhaps more the fault of the publisher and publicity machine than the author. The title and cover quotes clearly align the book with the current trend for ‘grip lit’ and Liane Moriarty (The Husband’s Secret), and it’s just not this sort of book. Yes, there is a thread of suspense, but it’s not overarching or strong enough to land it in the same genre as that which it’s pretending to be. That said, the book is also slow. At times, frustratingly so. Perhaps this is in keeping with the small-town focus on a simpler way of life, but upping the pace would have improved it dramatically.
By all means read The Teacher’s Secret, (it is enjoyable) but do so knowing you’re really getting a series of interconnected vignettes and that it’s not a re-writing of The Husband’s Secret.
Reviewed by Stacey Carvosso
Rating out of 10: 7
Published by: Allen & Unwin
Released: June 2016
RRP: $29.99 paperback