The Strangely Surreal Adventures of Sylvia Smetana by Meira Eliot is an unusual but engaging mixture of mysticism and reality. The novel begins with the profound question – “What is life?” - and Eliot spends the rest of her novel highlighting the importance of nurturing our inner lives rather than focusing on outward trappings such as ambition.
Eliot’s main character is the eponymous Sylvia Smetana, a likeable, middle-aged teacher, who has spent her life trying to please others. Her life begins to change however after a trip to Prague with her mother Sveltana, a Czech who relocated to England in the 1950s. Sveltana gives Sylvia a ring made from moldavite which seems to possess the power to make Sylvia more in tune with her own wants and desires.
Much of the story takes place in Our Lady of Ransom’s private girls’ school where Sylvia teaches religious studies. Eliot clearly has an eye for detail and her descriptions of school life provide the novel with much wry humour. For example, Sylvia is studying for a MA in Death Studies and reflects how death is preferable to teaching.
Eliot uses the setting of the school to illustrate the farcical nature of the modern workplace. However, anybody who has worked with the new ‘corporate’ style of management will recognise the toxic environment it creates. Eliot pokes fun at some of the ridiculous ideas such as “head-hunting”, “steering committees”, “inset training” and “thinking outside the box”, all of which made me chuckle heartily.
There is no denying that Eliot has a real flair for detail and a lot of research has gone into the telling of this story. However, in places, I felt that the narrator’s voice got in the way of the development of the characters. That said, Eliot brings Prague alive with her vibrant descriptions and likewise by the end of the novel the school felt like a familiar workplace.
I particularly liked the characters that Eliot has created and Sylvia is supported by a varied and believable cast. The poisonous head teacher, Barbara Styles, made me cringe and laugh in equal measure. Sylvia’s mother, on the other hand, provides the voice of wisdom and it’s no coincidence that hers is the only story told in first person, which lends her extra credibility.
I think The Strangely Surreal Adventures of Sylvia Smetana has something for everyone. It’s funny, serious, moving and entertaining so if you’re looking for something a bit different to read then I recommend you give this one a try.