K Patrick, a non-binary writer and former greengrocer based in the Outer Hebrides, was recently named by Granta as one of Britain’s best young novelists on the strength of this impressive debut. Mrs S is a tense, often funny tale of lust and longing, which by its end has turned into a moving yet non-maudlin reflection on the complexity of gender. It follows a 22-year-old Australian who has arrived in England to take a job as matron at a girls’ boarding school. The story, set over a single summer term, centres on the narrator’s desire for the headmaster’s wife, the titular Mrs S, whose hints of reciprocation disturb the protagonist’s sense ‘of what is straight and not straight’.
Patrick’s idiosyncratic approach to naming provides the keynote of a novel in which identity is disorientingly fluid. Only Mrs S comes close to the privilege of being named. The pupils are always simply ‘the Girls’. The effect is austere but also amusing: ‘My annexe, attached to one of the sixth form boarding houses, is adjacent to the woman who runs the sanatorium, a nurse, The Nurse.’ Punctuation is unusual, too. Look at the passage below, in which Mrs S, replacing an absent art teacher, tells a class to copy Picasso’s Guernica. Three voices (not counting the narrator’s) speak:
Didn’t we need permission to do this? … Mrs S mixes more paint. Permission from who? From like Picasso? Another Girl pinches her waist. Picasso is dead you idiot. She panics. Isn’t he? Isn’t he dead? I believe so, very, in fact. Is it true you can only