Book review: Precocious by Joanna Barnard

We’re all vultures of a sort, and there are few things that demonstrate our need to know everything and tear everything apart and form an opinion than news stories about teenagers having relationships with their teachers,

In Joanna Barnard’s Precocious we join the teenager in the affair as an adult. Thirty years old, Fiona Palmer is married when she bumps into Henry Morgan, the man she had a relationship with when she was 14, again. Fiona still feels a pull towards Henry, even all these years later, and is willing to put everything on the line for him. But who is really in control of their relationship now? And who was in control when the pair first embarked on their affair? 

Precocious is told from the point of view of Fiona, as she sees Henry again, as she revisits her diaries from when she was 14, as she recalls her and Henry’s previous relationship. She’s not a completely unsympathetic character, but often, both as an adult (especially as an adult) and as a child, I really wanted to shake her and say: “What are you doing?” Adult Fiona seems unable to see clearly when Henry is around, putting her friendships at risk (as well as wrecking her marriage to a really good man), and acting more like a teenager than when she actually was a teenager.

And perhaps that’s why I didn’t really get on with Precocious, because I found adult Fiona really frustrating. I think she’s too naive, too trusting, but mostly just not much of a grown up. Barnard tries to show why Fiona was attracted to Henry when she was at school, and why she is attracted to him now – but all I see, both times, is a girl enamoured with an average, if that, guy. At 14 this is fine, of course he is appealing to Fiona – older, wiser, worldly, giving her attention, making her feel smart. But, while it’s clear that 15 years later Henry has changed (in some ways), when adult Fiona is with him she clearly hasn’t. And I don’t buy that – I can see that initially Fiona would be a bit stunned and fall back into old habits, but she then doesn’t progress at all.

There are hints of a mystery novel in Precocious, and I think had that been played up a bit more, the book would have been more interesting. Instead, I just felt Fiona was kind of stupid, rather than Henry being supremely clever. I saw through the story from the beginning, which meant there was very little supense or surprise. And the story was fairly conventional – there were no huge twists or unusual narrative tools. Sure, the subject matter is controversial, but that’s because of society’s position on pupil/teacher relationships, not because of the plot of the book.

The premise of Precocious is good, but personally I just don’t think the novel delivers, and it’s certainly less interesting than reading about something similar in the news.

How I got this book: From the publisher, Ebury Press. This did not affect my review.

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