A mesmerising read, skilfully and humorously woven together.
'Elizabeth Clansham' is a contemporary romance, set in the Highlands of Scotland.
Elizabeth Clansham arrives in a small Scottish village to teach literature. Well, in fact what she really is doing is running away from dealing with the loss of her father and the realisation that she has no meaningful “others” in her life, whilst telling herself that she is going to write a novel.
The village accepts her into its bosom and she becomes a part of its daily life. Through the eyes of her pupils, we see her as a teacher, the subject of a teenage crush, and as a romantic heroine. In the eyes of the village gossips she is a single woman (strike that - a spinster) for whom a beau must be found amongst the local bachelors. Through the eyes of a scowling, troubled child she is a witch.
Elizabeth is all of them and more (although I have to admit I never really “got” the witch one). She’s also a loner; a recluse who is unable to deal with personal questions or judgment, mainly because she is afraid of what she will see when she eventually turns the mirror on herself. Her character’s development is clever to say the least. At the start I struggled to get a handle on her, and as the book progressed I realised that the opinions I was forming of her were all wrong anyway - and not to trust her point of view, since it was so stubbornly myopic.
I loved that it was so subtle.
The book isn’t just about Elizabeth though. Chapman introduces us to her English class (thankfully small, as I was wondering if I’d keep track of everyone), both the day and night-time students, plus the local gamekeeper, the gossips and the neighbours. We have a good handful of characters to pick and choose between. Who will be cast as the literary sacrificial lamb? (Oh surely not him, surely not her!) Who will get together with who? I know who I wanted to get together, but will they work?
It is a wonderful story with wonderful characters. They live and breathe beautifully. They have their own language (I especially loved Ronnie’s, every third word an expletive), their own back stories, their own motives and desires. I thought that Chapman wrote the students to perfection. She deals with teenage-hood with a light brush, covering everything both respectfully and without moralising. In this book you will find teen drinking, bullying, many teenage crushes, dropping out, arson, anger issues at being abandoned, curiosity about gay sex, curiosity about heterosexual sex, and living with the town drunk as your father. And above all, friendship. All this was in the classroom Elizabeth Clansham walked into on her first day on the job, blissfully unaware. She’s still blissfully unaware of most of it by the end of the year too, but thankfully much more tuned in to her students’ day to day issues by then.
Elizabeth is the main story, the students from her class woven in as a side story beautifully. The other side story which I thought was absolutely spot-on was the seven-year-old child’s (the one who decided she was a witch). I suspect that Lauren’s story began as a small by-line but quickly grew. For me it threatened to eclipse the main character’s, since I enjoyed it so much. Lauren comes to stay in the village because her mother is running from her past too, and although Laeticia and Elizabeth are absolutely chalk and cheese when it comes to characters, they strike up the closest friendship Elizabeth is likely to have while she remains so hell-bent on protecting her emotions.
My final accolade for this book has to go to the constant references to literature. Elizabeth is teaching a high school literature class, trying to encourage her students to read widely among Austen, Bronte, Shakespeare and Shelley. And it wasn’t not long before I started seeing the characters everywhere - although Chapman did have to lay a few solid traps for me before I noticed what she was doing. There’s Macbeth and Lady Macbeth! There’s Mr Darcy. There’s Heathcliff (thank God he’s a little bit tamed), and she’s just got to be Emma… She has brought them all together, put them in a Highland village and given them modern names, but still, here they are. How will they fare meeting each other?
Clever, clever, clever. It has made me want to reread my old favourites to draw the similarities for myself. And to answer the question which the book never attempts: just who is Elizabeth?
(review of free book)