The Amber Fury (6 February 2014) by Natalie Haynes
Alex Morris is a successful theatre director at the age of twenty-six and has a pretty perfect life. She lives in London with her adoring fiancé Luke, an even more successful lawyer, and is not only blissfully happy, but thankful for her happiness and aware of how lucky she is. All of this changes abruptly when Luke dies suddenly, and, mired in grief, Alex returns to Edinburgh - where she went to university - and is taken under the wing of Robert, one of her former professors. Robert is now the head of a service known as 'The Unit', which provides education to troubled children who have been excluded from other schools, and he employs Alex to provide dramatherapy to the kids, filling the role of a recently departed art teacher. She teaches several classes, but her attention is particularly captured by a small group of fourth-years - Mel, Carly, Ricky, Jono and Annika - to whom she starts to teach Greek tragedies. As the teenagers are drawn in by the drama of these stories, and Alex becomes increasingly emotionally involved with the class, the behaviour of the students seems to mirror the events of the plays.
Alex is a great character - one of those fictional people you instantly wish you were best mates with - and the narrative gets under her skin immediately. The story could be mawkish, with a heavy emphasis on Alex's grief over Luke
as the only motivating factor in everything she does, but Haynes handles this very well, so that you empathise with Alex rather than getting frustrated with her. 15-year-old Mel acts as a secondary protagonist, and the chapters centred on Alex are punctuated with extracts from her diary. She's a good character too: believable as a teenage girl, and developed enough to function as a significant part of the story in her own right, rather than just a device to enable Alex's development. The Amber Fury takes the perennially beguiling Secret History type of set-up (academia, Classics, complex group of students, charismatic teacher) and transposes it to a grittier setting, with younger characters, and the result is addictive. The book is either deep with a deceptively light touch, or very light with enough depth to make it feel like a more complex piece of work - it's difficult to decide which (and that in itself is very clever).
If the premise of The Amber Fury is irresistible, some of its details are rather more problematic. Various elements of the characters' behaviour - both in terms of the things the kids do, and the ways the adults deal with things - don't stand up to a great deal of scrutiny. I wasn't convinced by the amount Alex had achieved, career-wise, at such a young age: perhaps because I'm older than the character and couldn't help feeling a bit scornful about it, but also because her narrative voice didn't fit with the idea of someone who had accomplished so much. I'm not sure about the technicalities, but I was also a bit dubious about how easily she just got this job and was able to progress at the Unit without any teaching experience, particularly as she was dealing with very difficult students, some of whom had significant problems, from disabilities to criminal convictions. (There were other problems with legal plot points, particularly towards the end, but I don't want to spoil anything by discussing them.)
In a lot of ways, The Amber Fury feels like a very good young adult novel; it happens to have an adult character as its main focus, but this could very easily have been switched. From an adult reader's perspective, the world of the story seems curiously, implausibly, self-contained - aside from Robert, none of Alex's colleagues warrant so much as a description; the other classes she teaches barely seem to exist; and the five students in the central group appear to have no friends apart from each other. But from a teenager's point of view, the smallness of this sphere makes perfect sense - it is their universe, and Alex becomes their leader, an idol, and - especially in the eyes of one character - maybe even a god. Despite the fact that I really liked it as it was, I think it might do better out of being targeted differently, with a bit of tweaking to make Mel's narrative the main focus.
This is a debut novel and it reads like one, and when you start picking it apart, you could argue there's a lot wrong with it. However, although I can see all the flaws, I still think it's an excellent story, and I still loved reading it. The narrative evokes Edinburgh's atmosphere beautifully, Alex is both likeable and memorable, the pacing is perfect, and the story unfolds in a manner that feels natural yet is gripping to read. Praised for its thoughtful rendering of grief, The Amber Fury is also a compelling and absorbing mystery and an effective coming-of-age tale.
Rating: 8/10 | Twitter | Goodreads | Booklikes | Bloglovin' | Buy on Amazon: Kindle & Hardback