A fifteen-year-old-student, a thirty-four-year-old teacher known as Master: Walbert’s taut and unsettling novel takes this classic plotline and parses it for what it says about power dynamics, conformity, self-image, truth, and more. How such a narrative is framed is crucial, and Walbert tells this one from the perspective of Jo Hadley, once that vulnerable fifteen-year-old, and now an adult acutely aware that she still might not be believed, if only because of the unreliability of memory. But what she remembers is Master’s manipulation, which Walbert shows with chilling precision, and the boarding school’s culture of silence and deference. “’Make big waves and you’ll swamp your own boat,’” Jo is reminded by the headmaster’s wife when she reports Master’s harassment. But “surely everyone knows,” Jo thinks, “and retreats,” pretending nothing is amiss, when the teacher visits her room at night. If Jo rejects Master’s belief that her “involuntary consent...was consent nonetheless,” she’s complicit herself in the benefits power conveys, joining—albeit passively—in punishing a student who doesn’t fit in. Yet she also knows the value of difference, appreciating her friend’s mentally challenged brother, who always speaks the truth. But for young women, being “normal” is challenging enough, and Walbert brilliantly dramatizes the force of images, from the quiet, apologetic girls no one hears to the wilder ones whose actions compromise their words (as is the case with Jo, who’s installed at the boarding school after her role in a drunken accident makes her a pariah at home), to the one an early death turns into the flawless “girl who should be mourned,” as if more complicated women don’t deserve to be grieved. Much of this will be familiar to women, who for too long have listened to “the language of boys, a language different from our own,” and “pretended to understand it…to go along.” Here’s hoping men read what Walbert has to say, and get it.
His Favorites - Kate Walbert