Book review: Higher Education, Kira McPherson

A quiet coming-of-age campus novel set in Perth.

Kira McPherson’s debut novel, Higher Education, is an ode to many things. It examines queer longing, complicated friendships, and the pleasure and pain of growth in your early 20s.

Sam, the protagonist, is a law student. Higher Education follows her as she navigates the five years of her degree. She is tall, funny and hopelessly reliant on shaping her sense of self through relationships – with people, institutions, ideas – which often do not fit her.

Sam mistakes ‘any feeling for deep emotion, an outpouring looking for somewhere to land’. Her internal landscape is populated with an abiding sense of dislocation. ‘Having a mind,’ observes Sam, ‘is like living inside a large house. [I] can pull back the curtains on any number of windows.’ Windows, behind which concerns about her family, the background stress of her studies and the intricacy of complicated crushes form an ongoing malaise.

Anselm is an English lecturer; Sam takes his class. At the end of the semester, Anselm hosts a party. Sam attends and meets Julia, his wife. A corporate lawyer, Julia is everything Sam is not: suave, comfortable and graceful.

Soon, Sam and Julia enter into a mentoring relationship. Yet this, like Sam’s experience of higher education, retains a sense of precariousness. ‘It’s weird how everyone tells you to wait for university,’ observes Sunny, one of Sam’s friends. ‘Like something is going to happen when you get there.’ In both her experiences on campus, and her mentorship with Julia, there is the tension of expectation. Sam is constantly on the edge of momentum.

Queer longing within the novel follows a circuitous path. Trish, Sam’s housemate, makes out with her – but the tautness between them hangs without clarity. Mink – a fellow student – plays a game of desire with Sam, composed of equal parts charm and manipulation. Sam’s desire for Julia plays out under the ‘imagined heat’ of Julia’s stare, but it takes the breadth of the novel for the queer longing between them to fully reveal itself.

Higher Education is a love letter to late-2000s Perth, with the action of the novel taking place amid the ‘prickly and dry’ heat of the city. McPherson does not explicitly name her hometown as the setting for Higher Education; rather, she subtly interweaves clues for the reader to interpret. Characters walk along Hay Street, which is ‘empty except for sleeping bags laid out under the awnings’. The river, which runs through the city, ‘gives no coolness […] in the afternoon’. The University of Western Australia is instantly recognisable – with its moated library and sandstone buildings – but never named.

The plot of Higher Education unwinds slowly; McPherson has written a novel that requires the reader to contemplate and reflect. The text is both simple and intricate. Strangely, Higher Education withholds itself; it stands aloof, much like Sam. Only with careful coaxing does the novel open itself to you – and this, in part, is one of the pleasures of McPherson’s work.

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Higher Education is a beautifully written debut. In deceptively clear-cut prose, McPherson deftly unravels what it means to be young, dazed and seeking the outline of a maturing self.

Higher Education, Kira McPherson
Publisher: Ultimo Press
ISBN: 9781761151378
Pages: 336pp
Publication Date: 1 February 2023
RRP: $34.99

Ellie Fisher is a writer. Her creative work has appeared in Westerly Magazine, Swim Meet Lit Mag, Devotion Zine, and Pulch Mag, amongst others. Ellie is a PhD candidate in Creative Writing at the University of Western Australia. She splits her time between Kinjarling and Boorloo.