Review: Ms. Hempel Chronicles

Author: Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum
Title: Ms. Hempel Chronicles

Publisher: Harcourt
Media type: Uncorrected proof
Release date: 8 September 2008
Reading period: 22 August 2008
ISBN-10: 0151014965
ISBN-13: 978-0151014965
Category: Adult contemporary literature

Upon finishing this book, I turned it over and reread the title. Ms. Hempel Chronicles can be construed in two different ways. On one hand we can take it as a noun: The chronicles of Ms. Hempel’s life. On the other we can interpret it as an action: Ms. Hempels chronicles her life, and what she sees and thinks about what goes on around her. While I began the book with the assumption of the first title, during my reading experience my understanding slowly shifted to the latter interpretation. Each thing Ms. Hempel observes – be it love, relationships between adults, the relationship between a teacher and a student, a pregnancy, affairs, a class exercise or module – initiates some sort of connection to her own past, her aspirations, her uncertainty about her identity. The narrative does not make the mistake of bogging down in self-analysis; instead, the connections that Ms. Hempel makes are what draw the story along.

Ms. Hempel Chronicles is about a young elementary/middle school teacher at the beginning of her career. Ms. Hempel takes in school life going on around her, the interaction of the staff, the complex and yet very simple lives of her students, in a poetic way. The narrative constructs the sense of a young woman posing questions to herself about the world through which she moves without ever being clumsy or obvious. She muses about ways through which she can challenge her students and the establishment, wonders about how to nurture tomorrow’s leaders, and makes friends with her students in a very natural way. Outside school, she considers her relationships with her fiancé, her family, and her colleagues. Despite its subject, at no point does the narrative sink into saccharine or syrupy sentimentalism.

The protagonist is referred to as Ms. Hempel throughout the majority of the novel, even when the narration follows her and her observations. Only in the flashback sequences, in which the narrative recounts stories about her as a girl, or in scenes with her family is she referred to as Beatrice. This technique sets the reader in a formal relationship with the protagonist, allowing the author to create a sense of privilege when the reader is allowed to share Ms. Hempel’s secret memories and yearnings. Identifying her mainly as Ms. Hempel also points to the importance and impact the character associates with her identity as a teacher and a public figure.

The final chapter of the book leaps over a decade into the future, making a sudden shift that is somewhat disconcerting. All the thematic elements are there, including the sense of connection to events experienced by Ms. Hempel in the previous chapters, but the displacement of time and characters seems to come without warning. This chance meeting with one of her past students, now a young woman, is the only time at which the protagonist shifts from being identified as Ms. Hempel to be identified as Beatrice (other than in flashback sequences to childhood memories or family scenes). The shift highlights one of Ms. Hempel’s commitments: to making a difference in their lives, partially through being their friend.

I enjoyed the book. It was a pleasure to read: it’s smoothly written, and the language flows comfortably. Ms. Hempel’s thoughts and wonderings are presented with poetic imagery and yet feel natural. At 208 pages it was a quick and easy read, but the story is tightly crafted and well polished. Any longer and the narrative would lose its unity, or feel less structured. Nothing extraneous occurs or is included.

Many thanks to Mini Book Expo and Dan Wagstaff at Raincoast books, through whom I acquired a review copy of this book.

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6 thoughts on “Review: Ms. Hempel Chronicles

  1. paze

    Sounds interesting. I’m curious, though, as to what the story is actually about—what the central problem /conflict is. Or is that giving too much away?

  2. Owldaughter Post author

    That’s one of the things that made the review had to write.There isn’t an identifiable conflict or problem. It’s the protagonist observing the world around her, particularly the self-expression of her students and her colleagues, that creates a subtle sense of growth or development in the character. If I had to shake it all and pull one thing out that stayed with me conflict-wise I’d say it’s the character’s need to express herself via challenging preconceived notions… except it’s never expressly stated, it’s just a suggestion the reader comes away with from observing the character observe. It’s a very organic and character-driven kind of story.

    In the end I think the dual title interpretation is the central story: the protagonist observes, and allows those observations to subtly change her. She chronicles what she observes; the reader if left to observe how her behaviour alters slightly in response.

  3. paze

    Hmmm . . . I actually quite enjoy books like this, books that are character driven, where the conflict lurks beneath the surface rather than screaming its presence in the narrative. The Remains of the Day, one of my all-time favorite novels, is much like that: although the conflict is very significant, the movement of the narrative is lovely and slow and the conflict only very gradually reveals itself. Even then, it’s arguable that the conflict is actually resolved in the end, which I also like. Have you ever read it? Based on your review, I think you’d enjoy it. (And yes, the film is wonderful, but the novel has so much more depth, particularly since it’s in the first person.)

  4. Owldaughter Post author

    Pasley, darling, I do believe that we read together it for LAC third year. And yes, I love it. So much that I was disappointed with the next Ishiguro book I read, which was… the Unconsoled, I think? I couldn’t finish it. I don’t think I have it any more, but maybe I’ll take it out of the library and try again.

  5. paze

    Arghh! Shows you what my memory is like these days. Although, now that I think about it, I suspect that I did a speed reading of it for school and only *really* read it several years later . . . Anyway, that’s my lame excuse for misremembering.

    Never read his second book, though my dad told me it wasn’t worth the effort.

  6. Owldaughter Post author

    We had to read at least three books a week for LAC alone, above and beyond whatever we had to read for our non-LAC classes. Most of us skimmed!

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