Dr. Edith Vane charts out campus hell
Dr. Edith Vane and the Hares of Crawley Hall
By Suzette Mayr. Coach House, 224 pp, softcover
Calgary novelist Suzette Mayr wastes no time throwing the reader into the throes of her protagonist Edith’s comedic disaster of a life. She is a tenured professor of English lit at the University of Inivea (Inivea is a small township near Calgary), in therapy, and also self-medicating through wine, shopping, and the occasional pot brownie. She is about to publish her PhD thesis on African-Canadian pioneer Beulah Crump-Withers, a fictional housewife whom academia touts as “a Canadian gem”. Edith scrambles to make time for swimming on campus, attends faculty lunches where she receives little encouragement about her book, and is more or less an obstacle rather than a conversational destination.
Perhaps not so much a satire but more of a tribute to the (sometimes) piteous administrative bureaucracy that goes on at universities, Dr. Edith Vane and the Hares of Crawley Hall transcends the campus novel. The university itself is in shambles, falling apart slowly while those within are exposed to its poisons and vermin, asbestos, pool-sized sinkholes, falling debris, and mordant infestation—or let’s say the staff. There are the chance encounters with other tenured professors and their “vodka-and-vegemite breath”, the vainglorious dean, Phil Vermeulen, a.k.a. “Phil the Pill”, her truculent colleague Coral, who appears on TV condemning the renovation policies and work safety on campus, and the evil PhD adviser and co-author Lesley, whose cruel words in the margins urge Edith to quit, adding things in person such as “Supervising you is like turning the Titanic.” It’s not all total hell: Edith’s washing machine isn’t broken and she has new clothes, but her girlfriend Bev is more wayward than she’d like. (All Edith craves is everlasting matrimonial stability.) She finally launches her book, whereupon she cracks under pressure, hides in the washroom, and declares “this toilet of a day, this toilet of a life”.
The author sustains our interest by unravelling a fall semester’s worth of turmoil, tragedy, and romance, with a generous pinch of schadenfreude, without reminding us about the endless gnaw of reality in the nonfiction clutter of our own lives, which is what good fiction is supposed to do.