Whilst reading Kira McPherson‘s debut novel Higher Education, I couldn’t help but feel like the interior world of the novel was familiar. It wasn’t until I was a few chapters in that I realised it was set in Perth. Don’t get me wrong – it was not the book’s fault that I didn’t realise. It’s just that I so seldom come across a ‘Perth book’ where I haven’t met the author or know them through a friend of a friend. (What can I say, we are an insular writing community over here?)
McPherson’s protagonist, Sam, is in her late teens/early twenties in what seems to be the late 2000s. She is studying that infamous combination of Arts/Law at a University which feels a lot like the University of Western Australia. The University, like the city where the novel is set, is never explicitly named, but the locations and the culture; including the stark divides between the haves and the have-nots like Sam feel spot on. Told in sections spanning the five years of her course, the novel charts Sam’s attempts to navigate university as someone who feels like an outsider in more ways than one.
Aside from the brilliantly realised setting, McPherson’s writing really shines when talking about issues of class. The prose is never didactic or preachy, but illustrates the differences between families like Sam’s, who live in the suburbs, and tend to work in trades rather than go to uni, and those of her friend Trish, who lives in a house paid for by her father, drives a nice car, and takes going to university a little more for granted.
Sam goes through life with a kind of wide-eyed desperation at times, knowing that she should be doing more to get ahead and live an ‘ideal life’ but not really knowing how to do about it. On occasion, she’s almost a passive observer to her own life- including to her own sexual experiences. When she meets Julia, the wife of one of her lecturers, she becomes fixated on her as a symbol of both career and personal success. Her growing attachment to the older woman teeters ever closer to the inappropriate as the book goes on.
But while setting and class are rendered powerfully and insightfully in Higher Education, I couldn’t help but feel like the book was holding me at a distance. The plot of this book is so subtle that it is easy to miss key moments or dismiss them as unimportant.
The tone of the novel is disaffected in a way that reminded me of Sally Rooney or McPherson’s Ultimo Press stablemate, Diana Reid. Yet, for me, the novel lacked some of the quiet rage of those other writers. Only later in the book, when Sam steps up to deal with the fallout of her brother’s incarceration did I really feel like she had started to take charge of her life and therefore become more relatable. Meanwhile, the toxicity of Sam and Trish’s friendship, while marvellous in its set up, was never resolved. And the growing sexual frisson between Sam and Julia grew a little confusing (though that may have been deliberate.)
Higher Education has a lot to offer readers who appreciate well-written, deeply interior novels and characters who are slightly off-beat. Read it if you love coming-of-age stories set on campuses and thoughtful social commentary.
THREE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Kira McPherson’s Higher Education is out now from Ultimo Press. Grab yourself a copy from Booktopia HERE.