‘Dr. Edith Vane and the Hares of Crawley Hall’ by Suzette Mayr

Book Reviews

Reviewed by Dana Hansen

If one has spent any time working and teaching in a post-secondary institution, it’s nearly impossible to read Suzette Mayr’s new novel, set on the campus of the fictional University of Inivea somewhere in Alberta, without recognizing the crisis of self-confidence experienced by the hapless, anxiety-ridden Dr. Edith Vane.

Seven years into her unremarkable career at the U of I as a scholar of English literature, Edith is embarking on a new fall semester, determined that this year “will be her supernova year.” Her PhD dissertation-turned-bona-fide book is finally, after nineteen years, about to be published—a study of the lost work of Beulah Crump-Withers, “former sporting girl, then housewife, prairie poet, maven memoirist, and all-round African-Canadian literary genius.” With few publications to her name, Edith is convinced she has at last accomplished something that will truly legitimize her standing among her unforgiving fellow academics, and rescue her from the danger of eligibility for the university’s euphemistically named EnhanceUs Refreshment Strategy. Mayr (who teaches at the University of Calgary) successfully pokes marvelous fun at such corporate encroachments on post-secondary education and the administrators who execute their cunning strategic plans.

In the weeks before the school year starts, Edith is full of her own strategic plans for self-improvement, chastising herself, as scholarly Type-A personalities often do, for her inadequacies and past failings. She will be a proper professor and write her course outlines, complete her Academic Achievement Overview, write peer-reviewed articles and abstracts for conferences, shop for “proper clothes to start the academic year right,” wear Hangaku shoes because “the fashionable female professors wear Hangakus,” and exercise regularly to “tighten up her marshmallow body.” Most importantly, she will act on the platitudinous advice of the university’s BalanceWell employee health program’s psychologist: “I am the architect of my life; I build its foundation and select its furniture.” Unfortunately, too soon into the new school year and after a humiliating attempt to network at a department reception welcoming her terror of a former PhD supervisor as a Visiting Fellow, she realizes, “No matter how much she tries new clothes, therapy, or a shiny new attitude, she’s still herself.”

Admirably, Edith’s extreme self-consciousness, naiveté, and physical awkwardness, right down to her spasmodic eyelid, are so effectively rendered by Mayr that her behaviour never becomes caricatural. The reader is genuinely invested with an almost morbid curiosity in observing Edith in her bungled interactions with her colleagues and students. It’s not really possible to feel sorry for her, despite the relentlessness of her bad luck, or to like her – she’s just too humourless and intense. Even her father advises her to ease up a bit. “That way,” he suggests to her, “maybe the world will stop shitting on you so much.”

Edith’s problems are legion, but her biggest obstacle to achieving her supernova year is Crawley Hall itself, the Brutalist building housing her department, office, and classrooms. Mayr’s satirical take on the absurdities of life in a scholarly institution reaches full effect and veers into the fantastical as Crawley Hall assumes a life of its own, crumbling apart and turning on its occupants. Crawley is crawling with hares, infested with maggots, polluted by toxic air, and haunted by possessed mailboxes, elevators, and washrooms. Edith is seeing strange patterns in her clothing, her colleagues are becoming ill, disappearing, and worse, and a giant sinkhole opens up in the building’s parking lot. And the semester’s not even half over! Clearly, something is rotten in Crawley Hall and by extension the university, and Mayr’s personification of the ivory tower itself as a destructive supernatural entity is just far-fetched enough to be eerily convincing. “The University of Inivea is just a machine that eats people,” Edith’s colleague Angus notes. “They want you to give until they’ve sucked you into a husk.”

Dr. Edith Vane and the Hares of Crawley Hall is Mayr’s second and admittedly more successful attempt—following her previous novel, Monoceros (2011)—at incorporating magical realism into her narratives, and this story owes much to Alice in Wonderland. Similar to Alice’s hallucinatory experience of having her world turned upside down when she lands in Wonderland, Edith’s return to Crawley Hall after summer break is like a stumble down the proverbial rabbit hole, figuratively and literally. Just what is in the subbasement of Crawley Hall? And what is the significance of Angus’s Cheshire Cat watch? As for the creepy hares in the book’s title, they might be a nod to the madness of the March Hare, or perhaps to their mythical association with shape shifting, a not insignificant detail in this novel.

Poor Edith. “All she ever wanted to do is read books. Write books. Talk about, sleep with, breathe, shit, and eat books…That’s why she thought she’d chosen the right job, because understanding books is what professors do.” But as this whip-smart, captivating novel shows, the wonderland of academia is rarely so straightforward.

Coach House Books | 224 pages | $18.95 | paper | ISBN# 978-1552453490

Post a Comment

Your email address is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>


Dana Hansen

Dana Hansen is a writer, critic and professor in the English Department at Humber College in Toronto. Her writing has appeared in Quill & Quire, The Globe and Mail, Literary Review of Canada, The Toronto Review of Books, Room Magazine and elsewhere. She lives in Hamilton and is the founder and editor-in-chief of the online literary journal Hamilton Review of Books.