Reviewed by Danielle Pullen
There are some lessons you shouldn't learn in school...Fiona Palmer is (un)happily married when a chance meeting with her former teacher plunges her headlong into an affair. Intercut with the realities of their adult relationship, Fiona remembers first meeting the enigmatic Henry Morgan as a precocious and lonely fourteen-year-old. Her schoolgirl crush developed into an intense relationship, but it was always one which she controlled. Or did she?
The topic of a student affair with a teacher is a well-worn path with one of my favourite novels, Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller, covering the same topic area. Therefore it can be rather difficult for a writer to give this area an original or unique treatment. However, Joanna Barnard manages this in Precocious, her debut novel.
Fiona had always been good at English. Mr Morgan supported and encouraged her. Their relationship grew and the boundaries became blurred with out of school meetings and Fiona became unhealthily fascinated with her teacher, who she now knew as Henry.
15 years later and Fiona is married. A chance meeting leads to her reconnecting with Henry Morgan. Again, the relationship quickly becomes blurred and acquaintances quickly become friends and friends quickly become lovers.
These two relationships are both clearly inappropriate. At the age of 14 Fiona is a minor and Henry has a duty of care towards her. At the age of 30 Fiona is married and is therefore committing adultery. However, it is clear that Fiona has an obsession with Henry that has lain dormant in the intervening years between the two affairs and she is very speedily consumed by him. ‘I…Play music I have heard in your car, in your house. I…Drink your drink – rum and coke’. However, is Fiona’s memory of her first relationship with Henry reliable? Was she really a victim? Who is the manipulator in their relationship? Are the feelings of the two characters the same? The plot twists and turns and we learn more about the motivations and needs of the two protagonists as the plot moves forward.
One criticism of the plot may be that, as the novel continues, Fiona decides to prioritise her relationship with Henry over her husband. Perhaps it is questionable whether a middle-aged woman would throw away her life for what seems like infatuation. However, this simply reflects how difficult life can be in that we all sometimes feel propelled to make decisions and choices that seem illogical to others and that we may later regret.
Precocious is Barnard’s first novel though this is barely believable. Her writing style is gripping and involving from the first chapter. The tone is often light but the themes are complex and deep. In terms of the law, Henry and Fiona’s first relationship is immoral and, indeed, illegal, but in terms of maturity, who is driving that relationship? Doesn’t everyone find themselves attracted to an unsuitable person at some stage? To what extent are our own recollections trustworthy?
This novel was a real page-turner with subject matter that kept me thinking long after I’d finished reading. Highly recommended.
I'd like to thank Ellie at Ebury for sending me a copy of Precocious and Danielle for reviewing it for me.