Written in a polyphonic style reminiscent of Zadie Smith’s White Teeth and NW, Tessa McWatt’s sixth novel is a captivating jumble of voices belonging to a cast of diverse characters, several of whom are connected to an unnamed university in contemporary London, U.K. The circumstances of five characters in particular – Ed, Olivia, Robin, Katrin, and Francine – are revealed in alternating chapters as each individual struggles with his or her own particular challenges.
Idealistic and empathetic Olivia, a 22-year-old law student, finds her choice of final-year legal project complicated when she reunites with her estranged father, Ed. His noble work as a bureaucrat in charge of overseeing the burial of the dispossessed and indigent inspires Olivia to propose a poetry project to honour the forgotten lives of these lonely people.
For help, Olivia turns to Robin, a film professor whose own personal life is in a muddle. Caught between Emma, pregnant with their child, and the alluring Polish expat Katrin, he must decide where his loyalties lie. To add to the confusion, Robin is in jeopardy of losing his position at a time of job cuts and rising unemployment rates. Katrin’s circumstances are also tenuous; she contends with an angry boss and multiple setbacks in bringing her mother over from Gdansk. Ultimately, she has to decide whether London is where she really belongs.
Francine, a quality assurance officer at the university, is perhaps the novel’s most genuine and piteous character. Self-loathing, facing middle age alone, and coping with an eating disorder, she witnesses a horrific car accident that leaves an indelible impression on her. Of all the stories in Higher Ed, Francine’s is the one we most hope to see
McWatt’s big-hearted writing effortlessly animates these five individuals, and while it’s never completely clear, in the end, what significance this novel might be reaching for, it doesn’t matter. The joy is in the journey. As Olivia observes, “[Y]ou didn’t look at the finish line; you looked at your own two feet running.”