Sunday 30 August 2015

Reviewed: Higher Ed by Tessa McWatt

Higher Ed was published by Scribe on August 27, 2015.

Thanks to Molly at Scribe for sending me a copy of this book to review.

When I travel to London, I take the long coach there and spend most of my visits in a tube station, waiting for the next stop. Being in London feels much different to being at home and I spend a lot of my time people watching as busy Londoners head off in all different directions. You don’t get a moment’s peace. Reading Higher Ed was a bit like one of my trips to London. I felt like a real people watcher as I watched the five main characters, all busy getting on with their own, different lives, but also all linked in some small way, all heading in different directions yet at the same time, all heading for the very same thing. Higher Ed was a fascinating novel, really character-driven, and over the course of the book we easily get to know a fair bit about Francine, Robin, Olivia, Ed and Katrin, who are written with strong depth. We also catch on to little glimpses of ties between the five characters. Despite the beginning, where I didn’t catch on to any links at all as they were all very individual characters with their own different battles, there were links in there too. I enjoyed getting to know them.

Higher Ed is the first book I have read by Tessa McWatt. I really enjoyed it. The first thing that struck me was the format of the chapters, which are short and snappy, sharply written and quick to read. Why read one chapter when you could read two, or three, or… I flew through this book and loved the short chapters. I really don’t like long chapters and I read this book much quicker thanks to the style it was written in. Before the story even begins, the book lists the ‘cast’ and ‘supporting players’. I liked the idea of this, it gave the book a film-like feel, but then I felt pretty overwhelmed reading the list of characters wondering how I’d keep up. But that doesn’t ever become an issue when reading the book itself. I kept up easily. Each of the characters were well voiced, realistically drawn and interesting to read about although some more than others. Francine and Katrin were the two I most cared about and I liked their parts the most. Olivia’s story struck a chord too. Even though I didn’t find all the characters entirely likeable, they were still easy enough to read about but I was more eager to get on to the chapters of those I did like.

Surprisingly, I felt like the large number of main characters actually worked well. I’m never good with keeping up with lots of characters but I did think they suited the style of Higher Ed well. All the stories felt honest and believable. Some were sad, others were laced with humour but all made me think about how you don’t truly know what is happening in someone’s life as you judge from the outside. As with people watching in London, you make assumptions and guess what’s happening, what they’re up to, what’s bothering them, but you don’t really know. This novel really breaks down the characters and they come to life better that way.

The main aspects of this book worked well for me. My problem was with the actual plot itself which I struggled to get to grips with. I’m not really sure why. All five main characters were reaching out for love and acceptance. Something most readers (including me) could relate to. My issue wasn’t anything to do with the characters. I liked the brave themes the author explored like bulimia, death, pregnancy, redundancy and immigration, to name a few. I think I struggled with the tone of this novel which was a bit too strict and serious. There were funny moments for sure but at times I got dragged down in all the harsh themes. It’s not really a criticism of Tessa’s writing – how can you criticise an author for writing a multi-layered, interesting novel? – but more that this book wasn’t entirely for me. So I do have mixed feelings over Higher Ed but I couldn’t actually fail to notice how compelling I found it and how quickly I finished it. The beauty of this book is seeing the strands that link these characters come to life. I began, not sure strong ties would be possible, but I ended up completely convinced. Higher Ed was, overall, intelligently written, gripping and very thought-provoking.

Fascinating observation of life in London and how five very different characters can be brought together

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