Judy McFarland is a kindergarten teacher in a Steiner school, who feels trapped in a loveless marriage and a job that has become routine. When high school student Zach Patterson is assigned to help her prepare for an upcoming school fundraiser, Judy starts a risky sexual relationship with him. Initially Zach is thrilled at the attention, as it diverts his mind from his mother's affair and the subsequent effect on his family, but gradually the relationship between Zach and Judy changes and becomes darker, as Judy comes to term with the secrets of her past.
I do like a novel about a controversial subject, so I was keen to pick up The Kingdom of Childhood. Sexual predators in novels tend to be men, so I was interested to see how Coleman would deal with the abuser being female. And actually I thought this was well done - although Zach is flattered initially with Judy's attention, by the middle of the novel he has had enough and would like to be free of her. This is where the power dynamic comes into play, as Judy manipulates him into continuing to have sex with her, with both parties acknowledging that the 'relationship' is actually rape. I liked that Coleman portrayed this honestly, rather than taking the easier 'surely it's every male's fantasy to get with a hot teacher' road, that I've seen before when female teachers have been caught abusing their pupils.
However, I wasn't a fan of the sub-plot about Judy's past. Every couple of chapters, there is a flashback about Judy's experiences growing up in Bavaria, where she witnessed her father's extra-marital affair and was groomed herself, alongside other secrets. I liked the atmosphere of these parts of the novel, but there was so much build up that the 'shocking secrets' when they came didn't feel so shocking after all. It's like Coleman was trying to make this book as controversial as possible by adding this sub-plot when she didn't really need to, as surely the main plot is controversial enough. The added elements seemed to cheapen it somehow.
Although The Kingdom of Childhood was thought provoking and well written, I think my experience of reading it suffered as I couldn't help but compare it to Alissa Nutting's Tampa, also about a female teacher abusing a student. Tampa is far from an enjoyable read, but it's confronting, powerful and shocking, and deals with this issue in a much more successful way than The Kingdom of Childhood. Readers that haven't read Tampa will probably find it more thought-provoking than I did.
Source: Personal copy (kindle)
First Published: 2012
Score: 3 out of 5