Book Review: Negative Space by Gillian Linden

April 16, 2024

The post-9/11 world has instilled If you see something, say something in all of us, and living post-COVID means trying to interpret what we see and describe it while wearing a mask. In Negative Space, debut author Gillian Linden explores the repercussions of a part-time teacher at a private school witnessing possible inappropriate contact between the editor of the school literary magazine and a student.

The story unfolds over the course of a week through the first-person viewpoint of the unnamed teacher. As a part-time employee, the narrator’s life is split evenly between school and home with her two children and her husband in New York City. At school, and all other public places, she has to be wary of who is symptomatic, who is washing their hands, as well as her children’s health. The book opens with a visit to the dentist who notes that her daughter, Jane, has bumps on her gums from infected teeth and casually prescribes saltwater rinses and monitoring symptoms. Given masking requirements, this leads to an annoying additional step for everyone in the household: mask removal for the morning gum check.

Meanwhile, the school is desperately trying to make-do with a non-existent HVAC system among other infrastructure issues, and strict guidelines about grading and feedback. Even though the narrator wants a full-time position, it’s clear that she often disagrees with the administration’s focus. Though the lobby of the school appears welcoming, the learning spaces remain decrepit, and while the administration claims to welcome all points of view, statements made by teachers or students that make parents uncomfortable often result in meetings that are more about massaging sore egos than teaching and learning.

Since the school is private and expensive, many of the families sending their children there are high profile which makes their students high profile. Naturally, the student the narrator sees a teacher get a bit too close to is already a much-talked-about student at the school.

Initially, the narrator expresses admiration and affection for the teacher involved which makes it even more difficult for her to consider reporting it. “Jane had once said, ‘I wish she were my mother,’ about a folksinger at a street fair. This was my feeling about Jeremy: I wished he were my father. He was in his sixties and his face was made of ridges and concavities, like the rough stones Lewis collected. He was skeptical of the students, the school, the idea of education.”

Through thoughtful details about the narrator’s inner world and the exchanges she chooses to share, Gillian Linden captures the sense of a person constantly on the brink of panic while trying not to let on to her own children and students that it doesn’t feel like a safe space exists for them anywhere. Every action just raises more questions. Failing to report inappropriate behavior between a teacher and student means a student could be endangered and that can’t be ignored. However, if it’s innocent contact, does the potential damage to the other teacher’s career outweigh the need to report? How much can we ever know about an interaction we weren’t a part of? If the student is being abused by her teacher, but also facing worse problems at home, does this transform school from a sanctuary to another danger zone?

Even though the subject-matter of Negative Space is heavy, Linden’s insight and dark sense of humor make it easier to process. She has a wonderful description of the faculty advisor, Robin, and her affectations that the narrator finds herself emulating after she speaks with her even though she finds Robin condescending and disingenuous.

The theme of negative space is present throughout the novel in multiple ways. It’s the title of the school’s literary magazine; it describes the space between what is known and what is assumed; and it even appears in some of the imagery, as the narrator is trying to teach in-person students and one or two remote students at the same time. Regarding one remote student’s screen, the narrator observes: “She was sitting outside, and behind her was a plant with dark, reaching branches. It looked like an absence rather than a presence, as though it had been cut out of the fabric of the world.”

While I appreciate brevity, the one downside of Negative Space is it covers complex territory in under 180 pages, and as a result, Linden misses opportunities to linger on some issues that would bring more depth to the story. The narrator’s daughter has a tendency to offer strange observations and has many interesting dreams. While this makes for amusing reading, it’s unclear what prompted the need to grow up so fast and engage with her mother the way she does. I also felt like the relationship between the narrator and her husband was under-explored. Her husband is a borderline workaholic who traveled constantly pre-COVID. Throughout the single week covered in the novel, the narrator keeps telling her children to prepare for him resuming his heavy travel schedule, but she doesn’t have much to share with us about how anyone seems to feel about him being home or the upcoming change.

Overall, I recommend Negative Space and I believe it would appeal to fans of Tom Perrotta’s, especially those who enjoyed Election and the follow-up Stacy Flick Can’t Win. Given the timing and content, it’s impossible not to raise the similarity between Negative Space and the film The Teachers’ Lounge, which also explores the unintended consequences of trying to do the right thing. Good intentions don’t guarantee a good outcome.

Publisher: W.W. Norton

Publication date: April 16, 2024

Reviewed by Amy Armstrong


At The Masters Review, our mission is to support emerging writers. We only accept submissions from writers who can benefit from a larger platform: typically, writers without published novels or story collections or with low circulation. We publish fiction and nonfiction online year-round and put out an annual anthology of the ten best emerging writers in the country, judged by an expert in the field. We publish craft essays, interviews and book reviews and hold workshops that connect emerging and established writers.

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