Scholars have argued that childhood is a relatively recent invention, a concept that didn’t exist until the seventeenth century. If that’s the case, perhaps adulthood is equally suspect. Wouldn’t we be better off admitting that “grown-ups” are merely oversize, car-driving, money-juggling kids, instead of pretending to an ascendancy we rarely merit? The idea that we’re all just aging, idiosyncratic children snatching at happiness is central to Ms. Hempel Chronicles, Sarah Shun-lien Bynum’s gently, deeply affecting second novel.
Bynum’s debut, Madeleine Is Sleeping (2004), also traversed territories between childhood and adulthood, as a gorgeous fever dream, replete with circus lore, fairy-tale imagery, and eroticism. In this outing, Bynum embraces realism. A kind of coming-of-age story, the novel unfolds in an intimate third person inside the title character’s mind. “Many of Ms. Hempel’s students were performing in the show that evening, but to her own secret disappointment, she would not be appearing”: This opening sentence introduces a young middle school teacher perpetually on the fence between childhood and adulthood. As alienated and neurotic as this involuntary straddling act makes Ms. Hempel feel, it produces a rich narrative viewpoint. Her observation of “a girl with a wonderful butt . . . walking a few feet ahead of her” leads to three paragraphs of smart, humorously self-accusatory meditation: “Undulate? Oh, help us. The word was practically dripping with oily intent. It really was impossible to walk behind a girl with a pretty butt—in objective appreciation—and not sound hopelessly slimy, even to oneself.”
Ms. Hempel’s consciousness is a joy to inhabit. Kind, scrupulous, curious, wistful, and odd, she has the vitality of a bright, nervous child, overlaid by the premature world-weariness of someone in their late twenties. When her class takes a field trip to a reconstructed American settlement, Ms. Hempel thinks, “The air! It delighted her, it was brisk and wood-smoky; it smelled the way early music sounded: thin, feverish, slightly out of tune.” A woman who adores her hormone-addled charges (she describes a group of girls as “tenderhearted vultures”) and the literature she teaches, she navigates relations with students, colleagues, and her fragmented family with a refreshingly unself-conscious grace. When a student and fellow snake enthusiast offers her what most instructors would regard as a creepy gift, she’s thrilled: “‘Oh, Edward!’ she cried, ‘A rat!’ It was the most thoughtful present of that year; she fed it to [her boa] Marquez after school.”
Despite such effusions, this is not a saccharine novel, and heartache, sexual confusion, and resignation rear their heads. When Ms. Hempel observes that a colleague’s messy desk is “both hopeful and doomed,” she is, in her succinct, winning way, describing both her outlook and the predicament of so-called adults everywhere.