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Friday, February 10, 2012

"Ms. Hempel Chronicles", teaching, learning, living

Ms. Hempel Chronicles- Sarah Shun-lien Bynum

As soon as you start reading "Talent", the first of the eight short stories of "Ms. Hempel Chronicles", you'll find yourself instantly engaged by the very peculiar voice of Beatrice Hempel, an unorthodox teacher still in her twenties, confused while she grows, as we all do, figuring out what she wants to do with her life, and longing for something, deep inside. The difference is while she tries  to discover what she's looking for, she's also a middle school literature teacher. 

Author's Sarah Shun-lien Bynum is a magnificient one. I'm impressed about the way she's capable of balancing tones without hurting the fluidity of the book. A dreamy paragraph might be followed by a lightweight one, but the next sentence can be a "heavy", dramatic one. It all sums to build a solid portray, and create a genuine and refreshing character. Ms. Hempel is a believable, complex character, and at at the same time, a quite charming women.

After "Talent", we reach the highest peak of the book with its second story, "Accomplice", a wonderful love letter to literature, with a sense of magic, wonder and hope. Holden Caulfield, Tobias Wolff, a father in the "shadows", the fear of of being using the kids to explore her longing to go further, to reach something she can't clearly define. As The National would say, "she waits for the click, she waits but it doesn't kick in". What a haunting story.

But "Accomplice" is also the curse for the book, as the next four stories are nowhere near these fabulous beginning. The school and Beatrice relation with her class is sacrificed for her family and personal life. Bynum is very good writer and her skilled but surprisingly natural prose keeps you reading. There's also a more bitter, personal grey zone, an anxiety for being "stucked" that is quite appealing, but the sense of the magic and wonder, of reading something special, is gone, replaced for a more unoriginal recreation of the past.

Luckily, Bynum rescues "Ms. Hempel Chronicles" with the two last stories, "Satellite" and "Bump", which are again superb. Contrary to the previous central chapters, in "Satellite", she doesn't explain the story of her family. Instead, what she explains reveals her famliar story. And "Bump" concentrates, in a unique way, "defying gravity", with a simple, unexpected encounter where past meets present, and what could have been meets the future. Thanks to that powerful end, once you close the book, although unbalanced and imperfect, it works as a whole. You won't forget Beatrice. And for sure, we shouldn't forget Sarah Shun-lien Bynum.

SCORE: 6,5/10

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