” She died many years after the affair had run its frightful course, and by then much had changed in all our lives: the large house on Myrtle Street no more than a memory, my father living on a modest pension, Chatham School long closed, its door locked, its windows boarded, the playing fields gone to weed, all its former reputation by then reduced to a dark and woeful legacy. ” (Ch.2, p.12)
From a celestial-seeming distance, Henry Griswald, lawyer in his mid-50s, looks back on the year of 1926-27, narrating the tragic events overtaking the prestigious Chatham School, where his mild, genteel father served as headmaster until the events precipitated by the fatal arrival of art teacher Elizabeth Channing and English teacher Leland Reed.
Calamity is stated at the very beginning, involving the two teachers, and two deaths. The narrative shifts back and forth in time, probing a dark secret from a past that leads to a shattering revelation in the present. Henry remembers how he accepted Miss Channing’s tutelage in drawing and helped Reed work on the boat he was building to sail away from Massachusetts, ignoring his family’s orphaned boarder Sarah Doyle and deploring the resistance of Reed’s wife and daughter.
Staring at her mutely, I realized that I’d never understood how from the moment the trial began, my mother had done nothing but consider not the tale spun by my willful romantic imagination, but the dreadful anguish of Abigail Reed, the unbearable fear and rage and sense of betrayal that must have overwhelmed her . . . (Ch.19, p.183)
The book is not so much a mystery than a coming-of-age story in a gothic setting. As the lawyer recalls the events that transpired the year he was 15, he was given to daydreaming about leaving Chatham and its claustrophobic life. The young teachers, full of vitality and imagination, quickly became a romantic fixture in young Henry’s life. Their affair, one that went beyond the propriety of colleagues, was known only to Henry and affected him for the rest of his life.
The plot is full of tension and Cook manipulates the telling to keep it very taut. Most of The Chatham School Affair tells the back story with very detailed character development. The romance unfolds very slowly and in very restrained manner. Reader might not be sure what crime was committed but his lyrical language has a dark tinge that tells us tragedy is up around the bend. The ending is seamlessly breath-taking, not in the sense that all the threads come together in an unexpected way, but in the sheer humanity of it. Cook shrewdly uses the mystery genre to probe the human condition.
303 pp. Bantam Books. Pocket Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]