Review: The Teacher’s Secret by Suzanne Leal

Genre: Literary/General Fiction

On the surface, Brindle is an idyllic Australian coastal town. Peaceful, if a little sleepy. In fact, the most anticipated events in any given year are sighting pods of whales as they migrate north for the winter and the Brindle Public year six graduation play. Like I said: small town. But small towns harbour secrets, and when hidden truths are brought to light, how the townsfolk choose to react can make or break a community.

Terry loves his job as assistant principal and year six teacher at Brindle Public. He’s known his students for years, and they adore him. However, when the new acting principal, Laurie Mathews, discovers he’s been visiting a student at home and bought her a new pair of glasses, she looks into Terry’s past and finds something disturbing.

Nina is new in town. And she has a hard time winning over Terry’s class and colleagues when she steps in as his replacement. What the people of Brindle don’t know is that she’s also reeling from the breakdown of her marriage and struggling to adapt to life as a single mum.

Sid takes care of odd jobs around Brindle Public, and outside of school he swims laps down at the rock pool every morning. He’s lived in the same house his whole life, where he looked after his mother until she passed away.

Joan looked after her mother, too. Although really, it was the other way around. Now, having been forced to take an early retirement and with her mother gone, Joan is shadowed by grief and loneliness.

Rebecca marvels at her husband’s descriptions of the whales at the end of the street in the Australian town where he’s living in while working at the nearby university. She’s looking forward to visiting with their son, but never imagines that events in her country will see her seeking asylum in Australia rather than enjoying the relaxing vacation she originally planned.

Mel loves her husband, Adam, and their two ratbag kids. Although, she sometimes wonders how her life might have turned out if she hadn’t fallen pregnant at fifteen and dropped out of school.

Laurie is the new acting principal whom no one seems to warm to. She comes across as unnecessarily officious and by the book, but after working for the Child Protection Unit, she’d rather be safe than sorry.

The Teacher’s Secret (Allen & Unwin, 2016) is a moving and compelling story about shifting perspectives and misconceptions.

I’ve got to be honest, with its title and tagline: ‘Only one person knows the truth’, I expected The Teacher’s Secret to be more of a thriller. I’ve also heard it likened to Christos Tsiolkas’ The Slap (Allen & Unwin, 2008), which makes sense: both stories centre on an arguably inappropriate interaction between adult and child and raise questions around what is and isn’t appropriate behaviour for adults with a duty of care. Both stories also follow a different character in each chapter, offering the reader deeper insight into each character’s perspective on the events that unfold. But I’d argue that this is where the similarities end. Tsiolkas’ fiction pulses with barely restrained aggression. His narratives are unrelenting, and his prose is a punch to the gut. That’s not a criticism; I’m a huge fan. But when I pick up one of his books, I know I have to brace myself. By contrast, The Teacher’s Secret is a book with a big heart. Yes, it poses some difficult ethical questions, but ultimately it’s a story of compassion and healing and the extraordinary resilience of small communities.

At 421 pages, it’s a reasonably hefty read, and I surprised myself by zipping through it in two days (I’d normally take a week with a book that long). Leal has a flowing, easy prose style that carries the reader through the story. Also, I’ve been reading a lot of British and US titles of late, and it was a delight to return to a more familiar landscape. Brindle is fictional, and from the way it’s described, it sounds like it might be on the NSW coast. However, Leal’s descriptions of the small beach and tidal rock pool where the residents swim had me reminiscing about family holidays at our old shack in Coobowie, SA, and trips to the tidal pool in the neighbouring town of Edithburgh.

Source: Wikipedia
The Edithburgh tidal pool: a stage for summer adventures. Source: Wikipedia

I went to school in the city, but like Brindle Public, my primary school was small with an active community attached. My mum helped out with crafternoons and school excursions and even filled in as a relief teacher on occasion. Parents and teachers were friendly with one another and, with so few students (there were only twelve or so in my graduating class) everyone was close. So, The Teacher’s Secret felt like a homecoming, and I suspect many other Australian readers will also find much that’s familiar in the Brindle community. And the story, or rather stories, that unfold within this community are compelling.

Leal takes the time to develop her characters so that the reader is deeply invested in what happens to them. I was eager to know if Nina would be able to move on from her marriage and make a place for herself in Brindle. I wanted to learn why Rebecca had to flee her homeland and whether she and her family would be granted asylum. I had my fingers crossed that Joan would find the courage to speak to Sid. And even though the story belongs to the adults, I also wanted to know whether the kids would be alright after everything that happens.

However, there were two characters I found problematic. Laurie and Terry. Leal gives Laurie two chapters—significantly less than the rest of the principal cast—and she lacks depth. There are a few small moments where she shows the tiniest hint of vulnerability: ‘her hands are trembling’ when she addresses the school for the final time, and the other teachers make a point of not inviting her to the pub when she wishes them a good weekend one Friday afternoon. For the most part, though, she’s depicted as a one-dimensional killjoy out to get Terry at any cost and with seemingly little motivation.

Reorder, refile, rearrange. This is Laurie’s forte. It’s what she was known for at head office: her attention to detail, her sense of order. The systems guru, that’s what they called her, and that’s what she likes to call herself. Privately, of course.

The reader never finds out why she’s so uptight or who she is outside her work. She reads more as a device for ousting Terry than a fully fleshed out character.

Terry, on the other hand, is complicated. One of the key questions of the book is: does Terry’s punishment fit his crime? And Leal wants readers to mull over that. Terry is an excellent teacher who goes above and beyond the call of duty with his students, and they love him for it. The fact that Leal withholds his original crime until right near the end of the book had me suspecting early on that it wasn’t going to be something expected, and I got the impression that Leal wants us to feel at least a measure of sympathy for him, after all, he does good work. Sure, he’s not shy about giving the kids a cuddle or rubbing them on the back when they’re upset. And it’s a small town where everyone knows everyone. It’s not a big deal if he helps out a friend by driving her granddaughter home and babysitting her on occasion. Is it? Terry huffs a lot about the bureaucracy interfering with good teaching, at one point he complains to Sid of Laurie:

She made me sound like a paedophile … told me that my behaviour was inappropriate. In breach of the code of conduct or some rubbish. You know what I should have said to that? I should have asked her what the code of conduct says to do when a kid’s falling apart on the first day of school because her mother’s just got stuck into her. No, no, better than that—I should have just left it to the bloody code of conduct to sort the whole thing out.

I had sub-zero sympathy for Terry. Whether you agree with the rules regarding what is and isn’t appropriate conduct between teachers and students is irrelevant: if you want to work in a school, you have to abide by them. No exceptions. Everyone who works with children in this country knows that. I resented Terry’s arrogance in thinking that because he is a good teacher in many respects and because he’s popular among the students and has been at Brindle Public longer than almost anyone that he is somehow exempt from the rules. It’s typical ‘good guy’ mentality. Laurie pulls him up on his behaviour on several occasions before she reports him, but Terry refuses to modify his behaviour. This isn’t necessarily a criticism of Leal; a large part of Terry’s role is to get the reader debating where they stand on this issue. Mission accomplished.

The overall narrative hangs well, although following seven characters is overwhelming at times and I’m not convinced they all played an essential role. There’s also what feels like a mad scramble to tie up all the loose threads in the final chapters. Still, I was intrigued by each character’s story and ultimately found The Teacher’s Secret an entertaining and heartfelt read.

Very keen to hear other reader’s thoughts on this one. I think it would make for an excellent book club choice!


See The Teacher’s Secret on Goodreads and purchase through BooktopiaAmazonBook Depository and Kobo.

Thank you to Allen & Unwin for providing a copy of The Teacher’s Secret in exchange for an honest review.

Thanks also to Grammarly for picking up nine critical issues and eighteen advanced issues in my draft of this review. If, like me, you have trouble with typos, do give Grammarly a go!

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