The story of how the cover for Higher Ed evolved provides readers with clues as to the novel’s preoccupation with perspective; from a close-up of a clown fish to a human hand, Tessa McWatt’s story covers the gamut.

McWatt Higher Ed

Random House Canada, 2015

It begins with a cast of characters, five primary (the administrator, the film professor, the law student, the civil servant, and the waitress) and a couple dozen supporting characters.

“This way of seeing things is like being the projector itself, like life has a movie and she’s showing it.” This is Francine’s observation (the administrator).

But Robin (the film professor) reminds readers that any given scene contains more detail than a casual passer-by might recognize:

“Kurosawa would use the noise and the pending rain. He would begin this scene with a long, wide-angled exposition—water, concrete, a lid of clouds—and then move to the contracted theatrical space to focus on the unknown woman. Robin looks around him, and, of course, there she is.”

As much as the five primary voices are central to the novel, the list includes several supporting characters who are deceased. (All are tied to the academic setting somehow, too, emphasizing another layer of interconnection.)

The unknown: what is lost is as much of a focus for Tessa McWatt as is the process of discovery and exploration.

“’What are you looking for, Olivia?’ he says, thinking that this young woman holds truth as a cup holds water. He himself is a sieve.”

Perhaps the novelist is much like a sieve too, but despite the metaphysical matters which simmer beneath the surface of Higher Ed, the elements of the concrete and familiar world invite readers to settle into story.

“Callaloo, pepperpot, Rupununi, arapaima, Karanambu, Essequibo: words he still must say to her.”

Ed muses upon the idea of expression and connection, observing that “while a young man wants freedom, an old man wants only peace”.

What is the relationship between peace and death?

“He was dead, I was sure of it, but I could have done something, maybe. I could have called someone; I could have turned him over. I could even have said something like I was sorry, but I didn’t. I did nothing.” (Speaker’s name withheld to avoid spoilers.)

How does the editing process affect the speed of events?

“There is a time in all the loves she has had when one person becomes faster or slower than the other person in the way love is working in their heart,” Katrin muses.

Who remains in the audience?

“’The lonely dead,’ [Robin] says, her shoulders hunching. ‘They are mostly people without family, or if they’re foreigners we don’t even know who they are, they have no papers, or they are old people whose family have fucked off—they don’t get funerals, not proper ones.'”

What happens when the credits roll?

“All these people and their bodies: celluloid. And when life checks out, when it clicks off, it stays in other places, like in her hand, like in her finger. Like in her jaw. Sayonara!” (That’s Francine, again.)

How do we say goodbye?

“And if she gets beyond all these, she will have arrived at something resembling an original idea. There is a case to be made for rights that take into account a proper goodbye.”

Tessa McWatt’s Higher Ed might be preoccupied with farewells, but it’s the perfect ‘hello’ for readers who have not yet discovered this writer’s work.