The Emotional Complexities of K Patrick’s ‘Mrs S’

The writer's debut novel, set in an English boarding school, explores desire, gender identity and charged dynamics

BY Lisette May Monroe in Books , Opinion | 24 JUL 23

In K Patrick’s debut novel Mrs S (2023), we become entangled in a haze of longing that stretches out across a stifling summer, humid with anticipation. Set in a dusty boarding school for girls in rural England, Mrs. S follows the central character, a butch young Australian employed by the school as a Matron. This protagonist, who is never named, falls into a libidinous affair with the headmaster’s wife, the titular Mrs S, bringing with it the contemporary sex writing I have been waiting for – finally, some urgent lesbian fucking.

The verdant landscape that surrounds the school, appearing to be joyfully alive but actually emerging as an oppressive trap, is a stage on which these charged dynamics play out. The school is haunted by the memory of ‘The Dead Author’, a former student whose statues and portraits dominate the hallways; a spectre of the ideal, an aspirational matriarch whose presence weighs heavily over the building. The Dead Author is a silent, cold, judgemental mother, a counter to the warmth and charm of Mrs S, who dotes on the pupils.

The school's pupils, simply referred to as ‘The Girls’, bring with them all the bubbly terror that only gangs of teenage girls can, new insults cloying their mouths every day. They are a swarm, their small rebellions proliferating throughout and their teenage obsession with pushing at the edges of authority living in tension with their constant need to be mothered. They poke at the Matron, whose sexuality is an easy target for their collective cruelty.


Mr S book cover image
K Patrick, Mrs S, 2023, book cover. Courtesy: 4th Estate

The Girls are also full of longing, like most of Patrick’s characters. They yearn constantly to exist as their authentic selves; they yearn too for the bodies of others, and the opportunity to simulate them, but each feel bound by societal and educational constraints. Patrick writes into these feelings, stretching them throughout the novel, bringing them close but leaving them unresolved – a relatable depiction. The only characters who evade this scrutiny are men who appear in the novel, the Headmaster and the History Teacher, who seem to lumber along with ease, comfortable in their skin.

K Patrick, recently named as one of Granta’s 2023 Best of Young British Novelists, is a hyper-observant stylist; it’s the precision of their prose that makes the Matron such a robust character. In short, poetic sentences, without speech marks, everything in the text tumbles together to form The Matron’s narrative – we only ever live in this world from their point of view. The novel's queer characters live in a state of high alert; attuned to threats, looking for compassion, and finding relief in small details such as a swooping bird or a button on a biker’s jeans. ‘I feel the itch of skin beneath my binder. Inevitable. I notice the things I want to steal’.

The preciseness of the novel also exposes the shortcomings of language and our lack of a vocabulary for discussing bodies and constructions of gender. Language and self-expression in this instance become the very things that do not allow The Matron to live in their body as it should be. ‘Oh summer is embarrassing. Already it is embarrassing, to be a body on permanent display’. They grasp for descriptors for their body but come up short. Here, Patrick shows us deftly that the words to which we are so attached are not flexible enough to describe the bodies we occupy.

K Patrick portrait
Portrait of K Patrick. Photograph: Alice Zoo

The sex is exactly what it should be – unapologetic, not sordid, and as physical and fluent as it naturally demands. In an interview with The Guardian, Patrick referenced both James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room (1956) and Robert Glück's Margery Kempe (1994) as foundational texts they looked towards when writing about sex, and there is a blunt liberation when writing about the act of fucking that binds all three works. It is hot, but the sex itself remains an action, it does not become a character in and of itself.

It is impossible to talk about a lesbian love affair without speaking about queerness and the ways that queer relationships and bodies still – almost absurdly – seem to rupture a societal ideal. Throughout, Patrick steadies us through the emotional complexities that are magnified when a relationship becomes political simply because of who is in it. The fullness of this crush is absorbing and unrelenting, like listening to a friend who has just fallen in love and will speak of nothing else. You become an ally in their desires, supportive but always disconnected. We hang onto our friend’s every word, wishing for them that the sex will be as good as they imagined. That it will all be worth it.

K Patrick's Mrs S is published by 4th Estate Books

Main image: Portrait of K Patrick. Photograph: Alice Zoo

Lisette May Monroe is an artist and writer based in Glasgow, UK. She is the co-founder of Rosie’s Disobedient Press, an artist-led publisher that focuses on writing from marginalized perspectives.