The Teacher’s Secret by Susanne Leal
We all know what evil in schools looks like, right? There’s huge amounts of coverage in the press. So the tag for this is ‘Acclaimed Aussie novel exploring good & evil in schools’. Right. We know what it’s about; we’re led there.
Except that’s not quite true. It’s probably better to say that Secret ‘explores life, petty bureaucracy and its associated nastiness in an around a fired, male teacher at a school in a small community’. It’s a mix of a number of stories put together, each a tale of an individual in a small town and the link between them all being the school – whether their children attend, whether they’re a teacher/janitor or whether they’re linked to it in some way.
Sure, as part of this melange, Secret tries to deal with some big issues that need airing – and Susanna Leal has to be applauded for sticking her head above the parapet to look at them. And it’s not giving much away to say that paedophilia is part of what’s explored. But the ‘evil’ explored here is not really that of paedophilia at all – it barely gets a mention and, whilst Mx Leal tries to give hints of a sickening mind, they are never quite convincing enough to sell the idea (which, to be fair, is probably the point).
In context, these hints could actually have been dropped – they are add-ons, it seems – and the reader allowed to make up their own mind, in doing so letting the reader decide, then be challenged to make a more powerful novel.
I imagine we all know male teachers in primary and the difficulties they face in the current climate, such teachers being afraid of any contact with children, irrespective of gender, even when the children need consoling. We are also fully aware of the dangers of convicted criminals.
But not in the borderline cases, which is what Susanna Leal uses here. The real evil at the core of this novel is something else: lies, bureaucratic bullying and abuse of power (from not just where you’d expect it), and judgement without analysis. This causes the cascade of events in and around the school, though, as everyone has has to go into trouble-shooting mode to stop what we see as a sinister form of emotional and mental child abuse. And it’s this that opens us into the stories of others around the small community.
Others. Hmm. We are shown the story (or stories) through the eyes and experiences of everyone involved. Whilst many of their personal stories are interesting, and eventually linked to the school and the fired teacher, I ended up getting lost by the sheer numbers involved: who was who? This doesn’t reflect on the characters, the writing, or their interesting individual stories, I just wish they had been more coherent, perhaps pulled together into each individual story rather than intermingled.
Secrets uses a challenging subject matter to frame the everyday stories of many individuals. What is neatly brought to our mind, though it can only touch the surface, is the question of just what does evil, correct behaviour and child abuse look like? What does it do when thoughtlessness or abuse of power prevails? How should male teachers behave? And how can a small community cope with all this?
We have a clean ending, too, reminiscent of Love, Actually, that is both sad and satisfying. Evil only partially triumphs, tragically ruining a life as it does so; people grow, have their own successes; life and love continue despite the challenges. All of this, with a range of heart-tugging, personal stories and loss.