Reflections on the modern student

2008-02-01 00:00

Since the publication of her deservedly award-winning collection of poetry, I Flying, in 2002, Finuala Dowling has established herself as a South African writer of some note. Nevertheless, her latest novel, Flyleaf, is disappointing.

Written in the first person, dedicated to Dowling's students and replete with lesson plans, the teaching process and reflections on the modern student, some of whom are subliterate, drugful and cellphonic, Flyleaf reads too much like the personal experiences of Dowling, the educator/facilitator, and too little like fiction. That said, it is written in a characteristically breezily accessible style, has moments of strikingly memorable phrasing, and ripples with humour.

The narrator-protagonist, one Violet Birkin, deserts a damaging marriage to the flamboyant, faithless Frank Eastwood Lea, takes up residence with long-time friend, committed hedonist and siren, Marina, and attempts to re-establish herself as an independent entity. This involves expanding her commitments as an English lecturer at the so-called United Colleges, essentially a commercial cram institution in Cape Town, writing outcomes-based material for an adult literacy organisation called Adlit, and abandoning (through lack of interest and a sense of new directions) her thesis on “Windows and Doors in Virginia Woolf”.

While she interacts with staff and students at United Colleges and becomes obsessive about lessons - among others, on the 19th Century novel, poetry, Shakespeare, South African English, the hegemony of English in a world context and concomitant language death - she also engages with personalities in Kalk Bay, where Marina lives: Marina's son, Leo, a directionless, serial drop-out and serious surfer; the neighbour, given to fishing and domestic spats; and the colourful Tebogo Mokoethla, a frustrated actor and devotee of Shakespeare, working as a butler for a local aristocrat.

Through her teaching and encounters with this miscellany of individuals, Violet realises her growing interest in the way people express themselves, an interest that leads her towards the study of linguistics.

Flyleaf is neatly resolved, offering an explanation of the title and satisfying employment for a number of its players. However, the novel as a whole, while being utterly readable, is not remarkable.

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