I’ve been trying to get back into reading for a while now, and if ever there was a time when we needed an extra level of escape into fiction, 2020 is it. As a teacher, a mother and a South African, when I heard about the debut novel from W.J. Smit A Healthy Learning Environment I knew I had to give it a go.

Why? It’s set in a Model C high school in South Africa during the drought of 2016. It looks at how the school – its students and staff members – cope with a dramatic event in their lives, while dealing with the surrounding political and environmental goings on of the same time.

The very first thing I loved about this book is the familiarity. Novels set in high schools are not new but a South African high school is a very specific situation, and it’s understandable and familiar to me. Even though I matriculated in 1999, I could still recognise the setting.

Reading the novel took me back to my navy blue uniform, walking the corridors between lessons, those wooden, brown school desks, sitting in the sun on the lawn during break times – just the first few pages took me back to a time I haven’t thought about for ages.

Then the characters are relatable too. There is a colourful cast of characters who piece together the story from their own perspective: a lonely secretary, an atheistic Maths teacher, a Christian substitute teacher, an adored artist, a misunderstood youth and an overextended headgirl. But even though they may be so different, they are recognisable too, both in our schools and our communities.

The first few pages of the book pack quite a punch as the story takes an unexpected turn, and after that we’re taken on an emotional rollercoaster. The book manages to cover quite a few issues in the story, from mental health to sexuality to inter-racial relationships to marriage problems to religion. While that certainly sounds like a lot it is a testament to the writing that the storyline carries these themes easily.

And, of course, hanging over every page is the hope and promise of rain, which we all remember so well.

Would I recommend A Healthy Learning Environment? Though the dialogue is at times a bit Dawson’s Creek (in that it is a bit too adult for the age of the characters), I would totally recommend this novel if you are looking for a page-turner. You can order the paperback for R399 and the e-book for R150 on the website.

A Healthy Learning Environment artwork
Artwork designed by the author

Disclaimer: A copy of this novel was gifted to me but the opinions are my own.

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