Policemen and doctors will tell you they know when it’s a full moon, because the A&E units fill up more quickly than on other nights of the month. Sometimes I would think the same was true of Rankeillor: there was a trigger of some kind — invisible to adults but perfectly tangible to the kids — which would make them all go nuts for a day or two each month; or week, if we were really unlucky.
— Natalie Haynes, The Furies
Natalie Haynes‘s exciting first novel, The Furies (St. Martin’s Press, 2014), is a five-act tragedy-thriller set in a pupil referral unit in Edinburgh. Alex Morris is a young theater director who has fled to Scotland following a mysterious personal tragedy, leaving behind directorial duties at the Royal Court in London and what could have been a brilliant career. Taking up an offer from her old drama teacher at university, Alex finds herself in the basement of “the Unit” on Rankeillor Street, where she conducts drama therapy classes with children who have been withdrawn from other schools because of their behavioral problems. She’s drawn to one class in particular, a group of five mismatched teenagers who overcome their initial distrust of her as they discover a shared (unhealthy) interest in Greek tragedy. Each has her or his own demons to face; each is caught between a society poised to reject them and a burgeoning creativity that might yet save them. The two boys, Ricky and Jono, are aggressive and inarticulate, short-fused, prone to corridor brawls. The girls, meanwhile, are slower to reveal their cards. Annika, who is desperate to return to Sweden, is aloof and contemptuous. Carly and Mel seem more amenable both to Alex’s teaching and the possibility of rehabilitation, but may have more going on beneath the surface than initially appears.
Haynes was a classicist at university and a stand-up comedian for more than a decade afterwards. Her experiences in both fields inform this suspenseful but often hilarious debut. The plot exhibits many of the traits of classical tragedy. As readers we are made aware from the first couple of pages that something is desperately amiss (“I wouldn’t have believed any of them could do something so monstrous.”) So like Greek audiences’, already familiar with their heroes’ fates, our pleasure lies in the how rather than the what. Alex’s flashback narration is interspersed with both the legal battle that comes after the novel’s central event and Mel’s diary entries. These three strands offer a multidimensional view of the unfolding story. Mel’s full name (Melody) and her reflections on the action recall the Greek chorus, although her function in The Furies turns out to be rather more active than a chorus would traditionally have been. Like Oedipus, Alex is blind — metaphorically — to what is going on around her until it is too late, absorbed by grief over her fiancé’s murder. Mel’s literal deafness, meanwhile, is a variation on the same trope: she hears but does not really listen; she sees too much but understands too little. Nietzsche’s opposed forces — the Apollonian and the Dionysian — are well in evidence, too. The students in the Unit are an uncontrollable, Bacchic presence, “Like pack animals. Like hyenas. They know when you’re afraid and they use it against you, taking advantage of their superior numbers to destroy you.” The teaching staff, charged with bringing order to chaos, spend their days attempting to keep frenzy at bay.
Haynes uses comedy and social realism to bring a contemporary accessibility and resonance to her story. Alex’s students are the source of much of the novel’s humour. Mel, for instance, on a train to London: “I never understand why people make jokes about the food on trains being bad. They have three flavours of crisps on that train.” And this typical exchange between Alex and Jono on the subject of Sophocles:
‘So in today’s lesson, I thought we could look at the defining characteristic of Oedipus. What would you say that was?’
‘He fucked his mum,’ said Jono.
‘That’s maybe his defining behaviour, but it’s not really a characteristic, is it? […] If you had to describe him to someone — I mean, what kind of person he is — what would you say?’
‘That isn’t motherfucker?’
As the children find resonances between the tragedies they read and their own lives, their comic interpretations begin to serve more than one end. For although her characters are the functions of a tragic plot, Haynes’s compassion for them brings a warmth and social conscience to what could have been a chilly exercise in Aristotelian styling. A debate over free will inspired by reading Sophocles ends up feeling as sociological as it is philosophical. Are these children to some extent fated by their parents’ choices or their socioeconomic status to “fail”? At least in the eyes of society at large? Alex’s friend and former mentor Robert, who runs the Unit, keeps his students’ files as confidential as possible, “determined that the children shouldn’t become prisoners of their files and of the low expectations that accompanied them.” Likewise, Alex, who is respectful of her charges throughout, would rather see their potential than dwell on their troubled pasts.
In true Aristotelian style, there’s no slack in this taut, swift thriller. Each act ends on a cliffhanger; each revelation feels like a shift up in gear. As one character observes, tragedies are about “people fucking up their own and other people’s lives even though they’re often trying really hard not to.” The Furies is no different. With its litany of misunderstandings, regrets, and misguided actions, it’s like a diabolical Rube Goldberg machine, marching steadily, inexorably towards its awful conclusion.
You can buy a copy of The Furies from McNally Jackson. Natalie Haynes will appear at our next Seriously Entertaining show, Inside the Lie, also featuring Andrew Solomon, John Guare, Gail Sheehy and Marcelo Gleiser, at City Winery on September 29. Buy your tickets here.