The art teacher of the title is Patrick Owen, who has reason to be disillusioned with his life in many ways. He is going through a messy split with his wife, who has recently disappeared back to her native South America with their son, and in place of the legion of adoring fans that he once had, back in the days when he was a semi-famous rock star, he now has a school full of sneering pupils instead. The first line of the blurb on the back of the book sets the tone : "Patrick Owen managed seven years at Highfield Secondary School without punching a pupil in the face." As a teacher, I wryly smiled with a tiny bit of recognition and empathy !
The inner city school in the heart of soulless housing estates that have been abandoned by the police and overrun with warring teenage gangs is undoubtedly an exaggeration, but I could recognise some of the less appealing aspects of my job, at least in the early parts - the bolshy teens with their hair-raising banter in the playgrounds, scuffles in the corridors and attempts to disrupt lessons did, sadly, ring true, although I don't think many teachers would get as over-involved as Patrick, as the novel progresses.
Every school has at least one nightmare pupil - it's inevitable because school politics mean that if you expel one "rotten apple", you have to accept another one in exchange from another school - and Highfield's pupil from hell has Mr Owen permanently in his sights. He likes to push his buttons, and his luck, knowing full well that his teacher can't touch him ... at least on school premises. This incident isn't Patrick's only lack of professional judgement though - he also gets romantically involved with the mother of another pupil from the same class, which makes things even more complicated.
As the rival teen gangs start intensifying their violence on the estate, Patrick finds himself unwittingly becoming a pawn in a dangerous game of cat and mouse, where he is totally out of his depth with more than his professional reputation at stake.
It's a chilling tale that gave me goosebumps, especially reading it as a teacher. Although Patrick's reactions and choices often seemed highly improbable, the basic plot itself is disturbingly believable. The shock ending is suitably bittersweet - in this kind of social context, it would be unlikely for all of the characters to get their happy-ever-after.
star rating : 4/5
RRP : £8.99
Disclosure : I received a copy of the book in order to write an honest review.