Canadian's Reviews > Higher Ed

Higher Ed by Tessa McWatt
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it was ok
bookshelves: multiple-p-o-v, education, fiction, jobs, literary-fiction

Set in East London, this is a novel told from multiple points of view, with all of the characters linked (some more closely than others) to a lower tier university that is grappling with austerity measures. Lonely Francine, a middle-aged clerk who works in Quality Assurance, is an American who followed an older boyfriend overseas and was dumped by him some time before the story opens. She muddles through her job, engages in repeated bulimic purges, and regularly checks her internet dating profile for interested suitors. Equally lonely Robin, a retiring and somewhat anemic young professor of film theory, who also risks losing his job, grapples with becoming a father to an "accidental" child with a woman he doesn't love. To complicate his life, there is the beautiful Katrin, a well-educated Polish immigrant, who can make far more in the high-end London cafe, Epicure, than she can back home in Gdansk. Finally, there is Olivia, an idealistic young law student, who is working on a dissertation about the lonely dead--those who have died with no family to bury them. Her research brings her into contact with Ed, "Wood", a dignified Guyanese man, whose social service job it is to bury these people, and who may possibly be the father that abandoned her in early childhood. Ed, too, is in danger of losing his job due to economic hard times.

Author McWatt provides readers with short chapters which move from one character to another, providing windows into each of their struggles.

I appreciated the artistry of McWatt's work and her suggestion, through the novel's structure, that as isolated as the characters sometimes feel themselves to be, they are all mysteriously connected. Their personal stories find echoes in the stories of each other, though the characters themselves are unaware of such resonances. For example, as Robin contemplates his unplanned fatherhood, Ed recalls the reasons he abandoned the role of father. Each of these men has a "Catherine", an elusive beauty, and a complicated love. By the book's end, some of the characters--Olivia and Francine, most notably--have small emotional victories in the form of new fragile connections; however, the conclusion is, on the whole, rather unsatisfyingly open ended.

The multiple points of view work to underscore McWatt's exploration of the fragile ties that connect her lonely urban cast. However, the many perspectives given also dilute the emotional force of the novel, leaving the reader a little cold.
While I liked the book enough, it is not necessarily one I would recommend or reread.

Thank you to Goodreads Giveaway Program for providing me with an ARC of this book.
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Reading Progress

February 2, 2015 – Shelved
February 8, 2015 – Started Reading
February 17, 2015 – Finished Reading

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