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GRAPEY BOOK CLUB: Higher Education Review by Kira McPherson

JACKSON ROBB | REPEAT OFFENDERS


"It’s weird how everyone tells you to wait for university, he says. Like something is going to happen when you get there” – Sunny




Over the last six months, I have been on the search for books that illustrate authentic realities for university students that I could potentially resonate with. The changing friendship dynamics, the complicated relationships, and the ultimate journey of figuring out who you are and what you want to be. The first choice for me were stories like Normal People and Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney and the way she composes characters with the flaws and uncertainty of someone in this stage of life. However, the experiences of these characters were similar, but not familiar. Enter Kira McPherson’s debut novel, Higher Education, which recounts the story of one person’s journey through the years of her degree, detailing all the feelings that come with this unique time through a modern Australian context. Grapeshot was fortunate enough to receive an advanced copy to review, as the journey of Sam through the years of her degree is the perfect fit for any student looking for their next good read.


Sam is introduced to us as a devious high school student in the public education system, causing grief for her fellow peers and teachers. Before too long, the story jumps ahead to her first year at Uni, where we meet her friends, Trish and Sunny, after they’ve just sat an exam. The way in which McPherson captures the finest details about life in Australia really makes this book feel like home. Set in the early years of the 21st century, McPherson includes fun anecdotes to cement the story in a specific time in history, using components such as changing your plans based on public transport times and references of the countries politicans of the time to elevate the story within its context.


In her first year, we are introduced to one of Sam’s lecturers, Anselm, who invites his first-year students to his house at the end of the semester for a small party. It’s here that Sam meets Anselm’s wife, Julia. After conveniently running into Julia afterwards, Sam enlists Julia to be her new mentor as she begins to understand the world of internships and her degree in Law and Arts. Julia’s natural charm and confidence does more than just inspire Sam as the two become close throughout the duration of the novel. Whilst not every student can relate to developing feelings for their tutor’s wife, the connection between Julia and Sam is representative of how the time spent at university helps students discover things about themselves. Intimate moments between the pair fuel Sam’s imagination of a life where they could be together, leaving the reader wondering if the feelings are reciprocated by Julia. Throughout the book, audiences get to see how Sam grows to understand her sexuality and how it is changed through her relationships. We see uncertainty with her relationship with roommate Trish, who moves from partner to partner, often leaving Sam as an afterthought. When her classmate Mink is introduced, the potential for something genuine emerges. Mink is unafraid to be herself, inviting Sam out for drinks and going to the beach as the pair seem to enjoy spending time together. However, the emotions for Julia remain prevalent throughout it all, dominating her thoughts from their first introduction until the very end.


Amidst the ever-changing nature of Sam’s classes, friendships and relationships, she also has a complicated family environment that provides added pressure to her everyday life. Sam spends much of the novel dealing with the trauma of her father’s death, with added difficulties from her troubled older brother Brian and her mother Donna’s second family. Sam’s position within her families’ dynamic rarely changes as she is often viewed as the less problematic and reliable sibling. Being the only person in her family who has attended university, the expectation of Sam is greater than that of her siblings, providing context for readers as to why she is less open with them about the struggles in her private life. Sam gets very little from her mother, so her relationship with Brian holds great significance for her. Higher Education serves as a comforting book to anyone who has experienced a complicated family, as Sam’s connection to her brother, despite his continuous trouble with the law, is maintained; not only through familial obligation but as one of the only connections she has left to her father. The journey for Sam as she grieves her father is assisted by Brian, a bond that provides a deeply emotional reprieve from Sam’s everyday adventures through university life.


Higher Education is the ultimate story of love, loss, and the complicated time in your life when nothing is certain, except that everything will change. It follows an intricate journey of self-discovery as Sam heals from the traumas of her past and makes brand new mistakes in the present. McPherson does an excellent job in encapsulating the unique blend of family, education, and social distress that so many young people face; crafting a story that is brave, honest, and representative for students. The Australian tinge to the story only heightens the fun of the novel, including the attitudes adopted by members of society regarding politics, the workforce and most importantly, the dissonance and similarities between public and private schooling. Aside from Sam, characters like Sunny and Mink are well developed throughout the novel, as their own paths provide added depth to Sam’s. McPherson expertly crafts a story about the societal differences that exist from class systems, creating a succinct narrative that is overflowing with depth and emotional turbulence. Higher Education is the best kind of novel for those who don’t always know what will happen next. It bounces from the feelings of sitting in a lecture hall to attending parties with too much alcohol, creating a cohesive story combined with teenage angst and growing maturity. McPherson’s debut novel is a smash hit for any university student and will be available to read this February.

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