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book review

The campus novel isn't traditionally notable for its multiculturalism, probably because until recent decades many university campuses have been fairly homogenous places. The ivory towers in Kingsley Amis's Lucky Jim, David Lodge's Changing Places and Philip Hensher's King of the Badgers are overwhelmingly white, inside and out. Only in 2005 did Zadie Smith's On Beauty breathe fresh life into the genre by depicting an academic rivalry complicated by ethnicity, culture and class.

It was an innovation that Tessa McWatt runs with in Higher Ed, her sixth novel – a book that injects a welcome dose of diversity into a tale about universals: love, loneliness and the search for belonging. It revels in the collision of two hitherto distinct genres: the campus novel and the multivoiced immigrant saga set in London's gritty fringes.

Set in the post-2008 era of global belt-tightening and workplace "restructuring," the novel centres on the fictitious Thames Gateway U (an institution perhaps based loosely on the University of East London, where the author teaches), to depict a precarious, post-tenure academic world merging with a city of immigrants scraping by on café tips (four of its five main characters have jobs on the line). In her acknowledgments, McWatt thanks the critic John Berger, who once noted that since Charles Dickens, London has forever been a teenager or "urchin." Higher Ed paints a more melancholy London; a city fumbling through a shoestring midlife crisis.

Recounted from the alternating perspectives of Robin, a university professor; Francine, the American administrator who admires him from afar; Robin's student, Olivia; Olivia's Guyanese father, Ed; and Katrin, a Polish waitress with whom Robin dreams of starting a new life, the book suffers from some irregularity. Francine's storyline in particular has to work hard to feel justified. Opening with the hackneyed device of someone vomiting into a toilet, her narrative sags through an awkward friendship with an anthropology professor and the trauma of a fatal road accident in which Francine is marginally involved. That said, her sections also contain glimpses of secondary characters that are fresh and humane (visiting the home of the victim's family, Francine picks up "the sad sound of daytime television"; in her friend's voice she hears "that little girl who tortured dolls, collected butterflies, made life difficult for others because it was hell to be Patricia"). Although we never meet the crash victim, himself a recent immigrant, his presence winds loosely through the stories. Similar overlaps occur between Olivia, a law student accidentally reunited with her long-absent father, Ed, and Robin, who must decide whether to move back in with his pregnant ex (in case the common theme of surprise fatherhood wasn't clear, his new girlfriend is called Katrin; Olivia's mother is named Catherine).

Olivia is researching forms of commemoration at communal graves when she discovers Ed, who works for Dagenham Council as a caretaker of the lonely dead. Years of struggling to make sense of her father's abandonment are overturned as she discovers the truth behind his disappearance. For his part, Ed must decide what kind of father he can now be: one who can reconnect Olivia with her roots ("Callaloo, pepperpot, Rupununi, arapaima, Karanambu, Essequibo: words he still must say to her"), but also one who can share in her future.

These are big themes and McWatt handles them competently. Where she excels, however, is in ruthlessly pinpointing a variety of small hypocrisies. Robin is a theorist: a dying breed in a department moving toward practice-based programs. As part of a bid to keep his position, "he was required to create a course-improvement plan based on the fact that some students don't do as well as others." Anyone who has worked in education will groan with recognition at several points in his story. Similarly, although Olivia's grandfather ("the stupid baby git") only appears briefly, within one sentence he is instantly recognizable: "He's the kind of geezer who fools you, who is clever and doesn't raise his voice except at the telly, talks like he has schooling, talks like he reads books, but deep down Granddad's ignorance is as deep as his unknowing of his own soul." Refreshingly, even the hard-working, dutiful daughter and loyal lover Katrin isn't spared: Growing up in Gdansk, we are told, she and her friends made monkey sounds when they saw black people on television. And Robin's fatal inability to decide between Katrin and the mother of his child reveals just enough entitlement to provide a dose of bittersweet satisfaction at the conclusion to his story.

With the exception of a last-minute reveal in Olivia's narrative that is perhaps too pat, the various strands of McWatt's tale tie up – or don't – in ways that are at once believable and sufficiently surprising. Most effective are those characters who take the path of reinvention: an appropriate course in a novel that pushes at the boundaries of what we've come to expect from stories about universities, about London and the uncertain times in which we live.

Trilby Kent's latest novel is Silent Noon.

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