When I picked up The Furies*, Natalie Haynes’s debut novel, I think I was expecting to read something akin to Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, given the ingredients the two novels share: Greek drama, a school setting, and a newcomer drawn into the lives of a pre-existing group.
Like The Secret History, The Furies is a gripping book with expertly paced psychological drama, but it’s very much its own story (and an excellent one at that), a tale of obsession and grief.
Successful up-and-coming theatre director Alex Morris leaves London for strikingly gloomy Edinburgh after the untimely death of her fiancé. Attempting to flee from her memories and her grief, Alex takes an old friend up on an offer: to teach drama to students enrolled in The Unit, a school for “troubled” students who have been removed from their regular schools.
The students are angry, anxious, bored, and difficult, but not hopeless; even in her dank basement classroom, Alex finds herself making headway with all her classes, except for one.
This group of five teenagers resists, in one way or another, her attempts to connect with them, until they start reading Greek tragedy together. Carly, Luke, Mel, Annika, and Jono take to the tales of rage and pain with gusto, helped in part by Alex’s willingness to meet them where they are and to allow them to twine together their own interests with their reading.
Progress is slow, and Alex often finds herself overwhelmed by the five students’ struggles outside the classroom, which she picks up in bits and pieces. And slowly we see that at least one of her students shows more than the normal fascination about a teacher’s personal life when it comes to Alex — much more. And that fascination could force Alex to confront her own fury.
Describing her future students to Alex about her future students, her friend says,
‘We take the ones who didn’t function well elsewhere, for whatever reason: they’ve been bullied, or they are bullies, or they don’t fit in, or whatever. The ones for whom we might actually be able to make a difference. But our aim is to get these children back into mainstream schools, if we possible can. [. . . ] We also lose some because they can’t function here any more successfully than they did at other schools. Even safety nets have holes in them, you know.’ (8-9)
One senses that he has the same plan in mind for Alex; he thinks that the school might make a difference for her. Though the plot hinges on her students, whether Alex herself will fall through a hole in the safety net is the novel’s crucial dramatic question.
The Furies is not, mercifully, an inspirational teacher-swoops-in-to-save-underprivileged-kids story, or a bereaved-adult-learns-to-look-on-the-bright-side-of-life story. Ms. Haynes resists stereotypes and easy answers in favor of what I’d call empathetic realism. Though mostly told from Alex’s perspective, the novel also includes diary entries by one of the students that flesh out events and help readers piece together the unfolding drama; Ms. Haynes is very adept at writing teenagers. As a former teenager, teacher (of students much less surly than Alex’s, to be fair), and person lost the depths of grief, I can attest to just how much this novel gets right.
The Furies is a suspenseful and moving novel—quite an achievement—and highly recommended.
*I received a copy of this book for review purposes, which did not affect the content of my review.