I was constantly compelled to turn the pages of The Furies, enticed by Haynes’ modern riff on ancient Greek mythologies almost as slyly as her character Alex is seduced by Mel, her ultra-smart student. Working in London as a successful theatre director, Alex is thrown into tragedy after the sudden loss of Luke, her loyal, dependable boyfriend. She’s also unprepared for her new teaching position at Edinburgh’s Rankeillor Special School where she’s been hired by her best friend, Robert, to assist with a group of difficult, unruly teenagers.
“I wanted them to like me, I wanted them to learn. I wanted to do the job well. Or at least as well as I could.” But Alex never once seems to be able to capture Annika, Jono, Carly, Mel, or Ricky’s undivided attention—until, that is, it all goes wrong. As devastating as the facts of the story are, the awareness of teenagers at an early age—and the undeniable reality that Mel speaks for thousands of girls—does little to temper Alex’s sadness as she finds herself consumed by the weight of Luke’s death and by a life just seems so much slower, darker, and heavier without him in it.
When she’s not teaching, Alex spends her lonely Fridays traveling by train to London to sit for an afternoon in a café in Regent’s Park. Her motions and struggles are vividly real and painful. She can no longer love, because to do so is to risk ridicule from her mother who wants her to get a life. Calling upon the ancient Greeks and their three Fates for inspiration, Alex tells her new students about this rich, sensual world where revenge and destiny and free will rule. Mel in particular seems most taken by Alex‘s stories, stepping through the veil of time to discover a people and a culture that begins to feel familiar to her.
Haynes blends the prophecies of revenge with ancient thwarted love, the inherent message of the classical playwrights and the increasingly alarming obsessions of Mel. Mel enlists Carly to follow Alex to London, unfolding her thoughts and observations about her new teacher in a series of diary entries which in turn shape the three sections of the novel. From the outset, we know something has gone terribly wrong, but Haynes’ talent is that she keeps us guessing what it is.
A piercing portrait of a character and a time is marked by dramatic life transitions for both Alex and Mel. Alex is alternately strait-laced and passionate while Mel is endearing and acutely intelligent. Alex’s lawyer, meanwhile, tells her client that she needs to remember that none of this is her fault and that she experienced an awful, life-changing crime which has made her “compelling to a teenage girl with an obsessional streak.”
Haynes keeps us guessing as she infuses her tale with a tragic inevitability. Beginning with love and death then shifting to slippery mystery, the question is: what did Mel actually do? Haynes ferments twist after twist, some at least partially suspected—by Alex and by the readers—while others are shocking and unexpected. Alex’s agonized ruminations on the fate of Luke are balanced by the kids who gradually intrude into her life; she clearly loves them and wants to see them succeed. Hijacked by the demands of her mother, her job and her shattered memories of Luke, she finds relief only with Robert and his kindly partner. For now, Robert is the reverse of everything that has usurped Alex’s freedom and security.
Haynes brings a unique aspect to the study of rage that, for Alex, appears to come from unexpected quarters and from a furious murderer who can no longer claim his or her innocence. Utilizing Edinburgh’s gothic atmosphere, Haynes soaks her novel in tragic missteps, capturing the horror, the helplessness, and the boiling anxiety while beautifully tying her characters’ circumstances to the darkness and fatalism of the ancient tragedies.