"The Art Teacher" Paul Read
Patrick Owen had managed seven years at Highfields Secondary School without punching a pupil in the face.
Art Teacher Patrick finally snaps under the pressure of repeated taunting, intimidation and complete insolence from one of his students, Denis. As events escalate, another student comes to Owen for help and in aiding and trying to protect her, he finds himself dragged more deeply into a compromising, dangerous situation which finds him facing decisions which will lead to devastating consequences.
The book hurtles towards a dramatic and gripping conclusion with plenty of last minute revelations and recriminations.
This is a gritty read. Its portrayal of teaching in a London school is brutal, as is the frightening reality of gang culture and its impact on teenagers. I'm not sure how I would categorise the genre of this book as essentially it is a story of crime, intimidation, bullying, murder and gangs. It is compelling and there is plenty of tension so it could be defined as a thriller or crime thriller. However, for me, what really stood out wasn't the plot, but Read's writing. His descriptions of characters, teenagers, teaching, schools and the community in which he based the novel, were so vivid, intelligent, insightful and humorous I could have read volumes of it. I found the emotions, decisions and dilemmas of his protagonist Patrick the most engaging and well written passages.
I found the novel easy to get stuck into and really enjoyed the tone of voice and style. The opening chapters focus on the setting of the school, the challenges of behavioural management and the distance and alienation between Patrick and his students:
'Kids today communicated with words he simply didn't understand. It was the same mangling, freeform approach they took to walking, of all things. Denis was doing it now; a lounging gangsta gait. Why was walking in the upright manner which homo sapiens had historically preferred now deemed so embarrassing? ....surely something to do with the unnecessary exposure of boxer shorts. 'Underwear,' he kept telling the. 'You wear them UNDER.'"
Read rapidly escalates the already poor relationship between Patrick and his students. The classroom feels claustrophobic and although it is tempting to cringe at Patrick's weakness, the sheer gaul and contempt shown towards him is so intimidating and relentless that it is impossible to not to feel empathy towards him.
"'What's the magic word?' Patrick asked.
'Bender. Apologise for jacking my phone.'"
Roles are reversed. Patrick is not the one with the power or holding the student's attention. It is not him they will listen to. In his own classroom, it is Denis who is calling the shots and controlling the future of Patrick's teaching career. The respect is for the gang - and the lessons they teach, not the professional educator.
......'You can go now.' Desperately he addressed the class. Still, no one moved. They knew there was more to come."
It's painful viewing. But it does ensure the reader will continue to root for Patrick enough to stay with the story to the end, as his few -sorely ill advised decisions -lead him down a path of no return. This is basically the story of an ordinary man; a man who wants to teach but is worn down by the system, the daily challenge of the students disinterest in his subject and is surrounded by uninspiring leadership or support. It shows how quickly anyone could find themselves in a situation where their life is changed forever.
The characters are portrayed with such clarity. The dialogue feels authentic and each character is very three dimensional. No one is particularly likeable, trustworthy or attractive - even Patrick can feel like a man weary with the world, often a little hopeless or short sighted, deeply frustrated and full of resentment and anger. Although his anger and frustration with his students is understandable considering the behaviour, rudeness and taunting he is exposed to daily. No sane person could cope with such cruel ridicule and such unsupportive colleagues.
Read's observational insights show an author who has a skilful command of language; who can conjure scenes with ease and can inform the reader of so much through shrewd comments and asides.
"....he felt the rain of pure hatred upon his back and his quickening footsteps echoed off the walls like gunfire..."
He captures the menacing atmosphere of the estates surrounding the school and the threatening behaviour of the boys involved in the gangs. His descriptions of the school, such as the staff room where teachers aggregated around a computer fuelled on a lifetime of coffee, were so wryly accurate they really resonated with me. I particularly loved the description of the exam hall (which I now frustratingly cannot find) but it evoked such a strong visual image and indeed, memories, that I am very taken and impressed with his descriptions. There is a tight balance struck between the dark, violent, story line of crime and acidic, biting humour and wry asides as Patrick sighs his way through his working day. It's a really effective mix and I liked it.
This is a more literary crime thriller. Patrick's almost mediative thoughts are as compelling as the page turning police investigation.
"They either looked at him blankly, or pretended he wasn't talking. Unperturbed, he explained how backgrounds should be soft and uncluttered, with light, delicate colour-bending. He explained stability, rhythm, depth and calm. All things he used to have in his life, he thought rueful, before the palette changed and everything became conflict, distance; a canvas hanging off-centre from a broken nail."
Patrick Owen is an ordinary man but a very memorable character. Read's writing is very clever; it conveys an atmosphere of depression, dead-end hopelessness, apathy and quite a bleak picture of society through eloquent, striking, powerful images. It's intense but distinct and will leave a huge impression on the reader. It is a literary read with an original blend of menacing yet engrossing characters and imagery. I imagine this book to be a bit like a film captured in black and white, grainy shots that are cut together with deliberately abrupt editing, seemingly improvised and unscripted.
It's well worth a read and I am definitely going to look out for any further novels from this writer. It's an impressive debut. Bold. Original. Controversial. Maybe not for everyone as Patrick is not always an easy character to relate to, but ultimately Read's writing is a treat.
My thanks to NetGalley for an ARC of this novel in return for a fair review.
For more reviews and recommendations you can find me on Twitter @katherinesunder3 (bibliomaniacuk)