A Mentor and Her Muse by Susan Sage

No Way Home: Book review of A Mentor and Her Muse, a novel by Susan Sage

‘I wouldn’t classify what I did as a crime, rather as a sort of vigilante justice’, proclaims the intriguing opening line of A Mentor and Her Muse. Thus are we introduced to the  moral and emotional uncertainties that haunt schoolteacher Maggie, the story’s central protagonist. They also haunt the novel itself, for good and ill.

Taezha (Tae) and Maggie both live in Flint, Michigan, a town whose fortunes  declined precipitously when the auto industry shut up shop without a backward glance or moral scruple. Maggie is a white schoolteacher and prolific serial monogamist; Tae is a talented and beautiful black schoolgirl. Maggie has some money and freedom; Tae has little of either. Maggie’s parents killed themselves, and she herself once attempted suicide and is something of a kleptomaniac. Tae’s family circumstances are difficult and stressful; her mother, Quintana, is fickle and conflicted.

Maggie and Tae first meet when Tae is twelve, and Maggie is immediately smitten in ambiguous ways that are supposed gradually to untangle as the story unfolds. Tae is almost fifteen when Maggie takes her on a road trip, more or less with Quintana’s permission. This trip forms the spine of the story. ‘Tae is not Maggie’s Lolita!’ exclaims the authorial voice at one point, although Humbert Humbert’s travels with his underage victim have long since been evoked. Maggie cloaks her need to be with Tae in concealing clichés: ‘We both realized, without telling ourselves or each other at the time, that we needed each other as central players in our lives.’

Structurally, the novel alternates interestingly between third person and first, between Maggie’s journal entries (dating back decades to race riots in Detroit and tensions with her conservative parents) and Tae’s adolescent poems, with frequent changes of tense and perspective.

However, there is also a lot wrong with A Mentor and Her Muse, and its many problems are  mutually reinforcing.

All authors have their little writerly tics and subconscious habits. The practice of writing necessarily includes constant effort to bring these habits to creative awareness. Only then can we place them under our command. Susan Sage has a lot of them, in my view, and they need to be disciplined. Together, they add up to a confusing and disappointing  experience.

To begin with, the text could do with careful proofreading: there are more than enough errors to irritate the most patient reader. Missing words and garbled sentences abound; at one point, ‘eluded’ is used when ‘alluded’ is meant; a gazebo is severed into ‘two halves’.

Explanatory clauses and qualifying statements in parentheses (like this) run amuck, page  after page. Throughout, swarms of self-referential questions infest passages of free indirect discourse, concluding paragraphs or else nesting in their midst. This overuse of an otherwise effective rhetorical device becomes wearing and predictable, so that it ceases to function. Eventually, about half-way through the book, they become merely amusing, as we wait for their inevitable arrival.

Themes of race and age, love and creativity struggle in vain for precise articulation throughout A Mentor and Her Muse. ‘What is this white woman up to?’ asks Tae of Maggie, but the question is hopelessly underdetermined. Maggie is, I think, meant to be taken seriously, but she is irritatingly naïve: ‘So I, too, have known something of racism and discovered what a hell on earth it truly is!’ For a middle-aged white woman like Maggie – no matter how observant, sensitive and ‘concerned’ – to make such a claim is frankly derisory, particularly as it is uttered after a marginally uncomfortable experience at a school committee meeting. Hell indeed.

A Mentor and Her Muse would benefit from a lot more dialogue. Assertions of states of affairs become dull and repetitive when they are used to the exclusion of so much else, depriving us of artistry and nuance. These assertions are hurled at the reader, many of them out of nowhere, and we have to take them on trust.

‘As much as Tyler wishes he could spend more time with Tae, it’s been amazing getting to know Maggie.’ There is precious little evidence for this amazement: if only Tyler had been allowed to say this for himself, so that we could see his feelings grow; if only we could know that his heart beat quicker and his eyes shone. But we don’t. Similarly with ‘More than once he’s thought about putting the place up for sale, much as he hated to even think of it.’ If he’d only expressed these doubts to someone, so we could see them evolve, then they would become real. But they’re not.

Maggie’s sister Caroline arrives for reasons best known to herself, at which point there is potential for conflict and dramatic interaction. Instead, we are provided with more dull exposition.

We don’t get to know any of these characters because they seldom reveal themselves in any other way. Thus, Sulie, a relatively marginal character, is a mix of personality traits and motivations that make her ridiculously unbelievable and incoherent. Maggie and Tae’s compulsion to write seems like empty and self-important posturing.

Every bit of information this stylistic approach conveys is given the same emotional weight. It fails to provide a path through the narrative: everything becomes equally unimportant, with no highs or lows, and the reader ceases to care. That’s a great shame.

Open Books | ISBN 978 061572 2801