Miami Morning by Mary Clark is the story of idealistic teacher Leila Payson. It’s a novel that affords the reader not only the opportunity to follow Leila on her journey through life but also offers a glimpse of what life is like working within the public schools’ system in Miami amid ever changing educational ideology and internal politics.
The novel begins on Leila’s 41st birthday, she is enjoying a comfortable existence having been a social studies’ teacher for fifteen years. However, her sense of peace is undermined as she begins to reflect back over her past. Clark uses Leila’s memories to draw the reader into her life as we are given an insight into key life changing events, such as the death of her mother.
A defining experience in Leila’s life is the two years she spends in South Africa. It’s an experience that fundamentally changes her perspective as she works alongside an occupational therapist who believes in total social inclusion for people with disabilities. Her conviction for equal opportunities later causes her to become a champion for a young boy who is losing his hearing which in turn leads to resentment amongst other health professionals.
Although the novel is very much Leila’s story, there are other significant characters. She has an unsuccessful romance with a womanising journalist and long term friendships with Dov and Maria who are both committed to charitable endeavours and, like Leila spend most of their time looking out for others.
There are many things to like about this book, in particular Clark’s ability to convey the setting. She describes Miami in a vivid and colourful way, focusing on the natural habitat. As the story moves to South Africa Clark’s skill is in evidence again as she transports the reader to the changing landscape. Leila also enjoys a holiday to Spain which is equally brought alive by Clark’s writing. The reader is left with the impression that these are places that Clark knows extremely well.
Despite it being Leila’s story it very much feels like Clark uses her novel to convey her own views on society and education. She promotes a holistic style of education which is about more than academic needs and looks after students emotional and mental well being as well. We also get to understand the kind of red tape that constrains teachers when Leila faces a dilemma of whether to intervene in a potentially dangerous fight as it’s against school policy to do so. Clark also expounds the benefits of diversity in schools as a way of enriching all students’ lives.
The novel raises many philosophical issues through Leila’s experiences. She constantly ponders what it is that makes us human and struggles with the need to retain independence and a sense of identity whilst wanting to immerse herself into the community. Whilst in Africa she questions the validity of providing aid and fears that it may diminish people’s sense of power and control. In particular it raises questions about disability and whether disabled people’s quality of life and independence is hampered by misguided attempts to help them.
The novel has an effective shape to it in the way that Clark takes us from the present to different past experiences in Leila’s life. It allows her life to become fuller and fuller and so by the end we are delighted when she meets Mark Carollten, an occupational therapist who shares many of her life views and interests. We are left with the hope that the two of them will make it work at a time when Leila is looking for a relationship to complete her sense of purpose.
The only issue for me with this novel is that Clark has chosen to tell it in the 3rd person narrative. For me it would have lent itself beautifully to 1st person given that it is exclusively Leila’s story and she is a very introspective character. I think it would have helped the reader to get to know Leila on a deeper level as it would have removed the distance that 3rd person inevitably creates.
I also think that 1st person narrative would have allowed Clark to promote her own views in a more subtle way. My worry is that if readers aren’t that interested in education or looking for a light read they may find Clark’s voice intrusive.
Having said that this is only my opinion and I really enjoyed Miami Morning. I think if you like character driven novels that are more thoughtful than action packed then you should give this one a try.