"Higher Ed" by Tessa McWatt

In 21st century East London, job cuts and unemployment are a daily reality for many people.  It is here that we meet five very different people, all searching for love and meaning in life.

Francine is a university administrator who spends more time fretting about her weight and her ex than at her job.  She is facing the possibility of unemployment, but when she witnesses a tragic road accident, her job is the last thing she cares about.  Robin is a film professor who seems to be drifting along.  His ex-girlfriend is pregnant but it’s the young Polish waitress at a local café who has captured his attention and his love.  The waitress, Katrin, is still trying to make her way in London.  She finds hope in her relationship with Robin, but like everything for her in her new country, it’s not going to be easy. 

Olivia is an stellar law student, a mixed race girl growing up in a family that doesn’t keep their racism under wraps.  She was abandoned by her father when she was young but while she is conducting research their paths cross.  Ed, an immigrant from Guyana, is working in a local council office, responsible for burying the dead who have no one to do it for them.  As Olivia gets to know Ed, she learns that he is not the man he was made out to be by her family.

Higher Ed, by Tessa McWatt, is a beautiful novel that follows five people who from the outside lead very different lives and are from very different backgrounds, but on the inside are searching for the same things.  

I enjoyed reading this book very much.  The chapters jump around between characters so that the story is told in the five voices.  At first this bothered me, especially since chapters are short.  I found myself flipping to the character list at the front to remind myself of who they were.  But as the book went on, I didn’t mind this much at all and I actually enjoyed that it went between the characters consistently.  Usually in books like this, I find myself liking only a few of the characters and when I’m reading the ones that I don’t care for, I just want to get through it and get to the people I care for.  But that wasn’t the case here.  

I also enjoyed how all of the characters are connected to another, in some cases it is very important (Olivia and Ed, Robin and Katrin) but in others they are smaller players (Robin and Francine, Ed and Robin.)  I was really able to get a sense of how we can all live together in one place, facing the same issues, but still remain so isolated from each other.  McWatt was able to capture the urban voice really well for me.

There were a few parts of the stories that I wish had been given more space.  I would have liked to have seen more with Olivia’s mother and her feelings around Ed and Olivia’s reconnection.   I wish that Katrin’s story had finished with a bit more understanding of her emotions surrounding it.  

If you like books that focus on the characters and their emotions, rather than major plot devices, then I think you will be interested in this book.  This is a book based on reality - the uncertain times we live in and how through it all we are still searching for the same, most basic things.  We can all see ourselves in these characters.

I received a copy of this book courtesy of Random House of Canada. The opinions expressed above are my own.


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