Why every Classicist needs to read: Natalie Haynes’ The Amber Fury, by Amy Thompson
‘Alex Morris has lost everything: her relationship, her career and her faith in the future. Moving to Edinburgh to escape her demons, Alex takes a job teaching at a Pupil Referral Unit. It’s a place for kids whose behaviour is so extreme that they cannot be taught in a normal classroom. Alex is fragile with grief and way out of her depth.
Her fourth-year students are troubled and violent. In desperation to reach them, Alex turns to the stories she knows best. Greek tragedy isn’t the most obvious way to win over such damaged children, yet these tales of fate, family and vengeance speak directly to them. Enthralled by the bloodthirsty justice of the ancient world, the teenagers begin to weave the threads of their own tragedy — one that Alex watched, helpless to prevent.’
As a Classicist, it’s easy to feel that our subject is isolated — constrained to a bygone era, not only in terms of when our sculptures were fashioned and poems written, but also their heyday of being studied. When I’m asked what I study at university, I often have to explain what exactly “Classics” is. My final university exams are called ‘Greats’, in contrast to the ‘Modern Greats’ of another subject. It’s not hard to see why we might feel as though the ‘Classics ship’ has sailed, that Classics is no longer ‘relevant’ — it’s archaic; it can no longer speak to ‘millennials’ who should be studying useful and important STEM subjects!
Haynes obliterates all of these feelings and fears. Alex Morris, Haynes’ main character, is fleeing death and destruction having seen her fiancé killed in the street. Landing in Edinburgh, Alex is appointed the teacher of a group of students in a PRU, who have been excluded from mainstream education. Initially struggling to connect with the students, she turns to Greek tragedy as a kind of therapy, using it to encourage the students to think about their difficulties and strong emotions. By presenting these troublesome students, perhaps an unlikely audience for drama over two thousand years old, as forging links between their own situation and those of the characters, Haynes exposes the enduring power of classical literature.
Be reassured of the brilliance and surviving pertinence of our subject by reading Natalie Haynes’ The Amber Fury.
Amy Thompson is a second year undergraduate classicist at St. Anne's College, Oxford and hopeful future academic, passionate about improving access to classics and broadening participation. When she’s not ploughing through Greek vocab lists, she can usually be found in a dance studio with a pair of ballet shoes.