The Amber Fury
by Natalie Haynes, Corvus 2014, Hc 320 pages, ISBN-13: 978-1782392750 (£10.39).
Natalie Haynes’ first novel is about a young teacher who decides that the best material to offer a class of disturbed young people is a course in Greek Tragedy. Things, as you might expect, do not go well. Her main character, Alex, has recently seen her long-term partner murdered in a random street attack. Unable to shake off her grief she returns to Edinburgh where she studied drama, and takes a job in a pupil referral unit where the pupils have been removed from mainstream education. Her relations with a small and difficult class of 16 year olds form the basis of the story. Haynes is a Classics graduate and is now a cultural commentator on radio and TV; she is a passionate advocate of Classics and does all she can to promote a modern, young approach to it. Teachers of Classics generally receive an unfavourable portrayal in literature, often seen as pedantic, dry and cold towards their students. Writers, perhaps unfairly, reward their teachers with this kind of picture out of a mixture of revenge and grudging admiration: they didn’t always like the discipline imposed on their thinking, but have to acknowledge the rigorous grounding they received. Alex is not a classicist but a student of dramatic literature and at the beginning of the book is beginning to have some success as a director in small theatre in London. Her enthusiasm for and knowledge of the Greek plays is real and sustained, and reflects Haynes’ own passion notably for Euripides. Her picture of the struggling Alex, whose teaching methods are much better than she realises, is much truer portrayal of a contemporary teacher of Classics than any other in recent fiction. Like many Classics teachers today she is young and female, one whose love of her subject transmits itself to her unlikely pupils who all find things to engage with in Oedipus the King, Alcestis and finally the Oresteia, where one of her charges finds rather more sympathy for a major character than she should. This is an inspiring account of how figures from the Classical past can speak directly to young people today, wrapped in a mystery novel form with doubly unreliable narrators and a vividly drawn set of characters particularly the young individuals of the troubled class. Classics has its difficulties as a school subject, especially with those who think it is only for an elite: Natalie Haynes shows how it can reach across such boundaries to touch anyone who makes serious contact with it.