It’s the start of a hot summer in the 90s, and our unnamed narrator is a 22-year-old Australian who’s taken a job as “matron” at an elite all-girls boarding school in England, only to develop an infatuation with the headmaster’s wife. K Patrick’s Mrs. S is The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie meets The Price of Salt, and it’s just as sultry and satisfying as one would hope.
Like her charges, referred to only as “The Girls,” the narrator finds herself angling to impress the elegant, self-possessed Mrs. S, and her attempts to come across as clever and mysterious serve only to remind the reader that she is closer in age to the students than she is to the object of her desire. The Girls, however, treat her as a foreigner, wielding their adolescent power so slyly that it’s difficult to pinpoint whether it’s because she is Australian or because she is butch or simply because she is not one of them. “The Girls know about humiliation,” she says. “They trade in it.”
Her solitude is to our benefit, though, because we get her outsider’s view of this privileged place that seems to be frozen in time, with its antiquated ideas of authority and its strict roles. We get incisive observations on everyone from the history teacher and drama teacher to the vicar at the local church and the “pastel women” who attend his services.
Mrs. S, however, is more complex. She commands a room, controlling the mood while giving nothing of herself away. “I can’t read her at all,” the narrator says. “That is, I realize, the point.” This realization makes the narrator even more intent on her singular goal: “I will know her better than anyone.”
Through the narrator’s obsession—which, as it turns out, is not as one-sided as she initially thought—we learn that Mrs. S is, in her own way, being made to fit in. “You’re so popular with them,” the narrator says to Mrs. S about The Girls. “Yes,” Mrs. S says, “only after a year of trying but never appearing to try.” She and her husband are also relatively new to the school, and the role of headmaster’s wife is not what she expected it would be. She is allocated all the feminine busywork: maintaining the rose garden at the headmaster’s house, decorating the church for a local wedding, hosting couples’ dinner parties and enduring endless small talk. Presented with the fact of the narrator’s queerness, she is embarrassed by her own domesticity. In a rare vulnerable moment, she asks, “Do you feel sorry for me?”
For Mrs. S, the narrator presents an opportunity to relive a particular moment from her past, to sneak around smoking cigarettes and doing other things that would certainly shock her husband. Underneath her steadfast appearance, there is a strong rebellious streak, and that, says the narrator, is the difference between them: “She looks for a way out, I look for a way in.”
At its core, Mrs. S is a queer coming-of-age novel, one in which archetypal lesbian relationships are held up to the light. The older, married, “straight” romantic interest is one, but I found another figure in the narrator’s strange new life to be just as, if not more, important: the Housemistress.
The Housemistress is slightly older and the only other obvious lesbian on campus, and she offers the narrator one way to fit in while still being true to oneself. She is loud-mouthed and gruff, but she is also genuine and, when called for, motherly. If one of the markers of having finally come of age is being, for the most part, comfortable in one’s own skin, the Housemistress has a thing or two to teach not only The Girls but the teachers, the headmaster, and Mrs. S herself.
K Patrick recently made both Granta’s once-a-decade list of best young British novelists and The Guardian’s list of this year’s best new novelists, and the praise is warranted. Giving precedence to the senses above all else, Patrick’s language and style are fluid; no quotations or dialogue tags are used, and there are often no breaks between dialogue and interior monologue, to the point that you sometimes can’t tell who is speaking or whether something is only thought, not said aloud. The ever-present weather is almost a third character. In one scene, Mrs. S has slipped an anonymous note into the narrator’s mailbox, arranging a clandestine meeting in the church:
Moody out there. It’s nice. You like a storm? I don’t think it’s quite a storm, not yet, no rain. No wind either. A bloated stillness. The stained glass is stern in the failing light. The eyes of the saints cannot be seen. It is encouraging. I don’t mind a storm, I hope the weather doesn’t change, this weather has been a blessing. A blessing?
Patrick’s poetic, at times elliptical prose style is perfect for building erotic tension throughout the first half of the novel; and the second half, when the narrator and Mrs. S are faced with the prospect of what will come of their illicit affair, is just as suspenseful—and just as gratifying.
by K. Patrick
Published June 20th, 2023
Shayne Terry's work has appeared in American Chordata, Catapult, CRAFT, Electric Literature, TriQuarterly, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, and elsewhere. Born and raised in northern Illinois, she lives in Brooklyn. Find her at shayneterry.com.