Madam. Phoebe Wynne

3.5 stars for this feminist gothic novel.

It is 1992 and young Classics teacher Rose Christie has been offered a post at elite girls’ school Caldonbrae Hall, a Victorian mansion perched on cliffs in north-east Scotland. From her arrival, Rose feels that she is in a place of secrets, lost and in the dark. I enjoyed that this is underscored by the ‘dark tumours’ and ‘abscess’ of her surroundings – the haar or mist that cloaks the labyrinthine school; Rose’s repeated need to consult the school map for direction; the hidden way.

We are well into the novel before the full horror of what is happening at Caldonbrae is made wholly explicit. For me, confirmation of what the reader has deduced is unnecessarily graphic and I think the power of the novel lies more with its hints and veiled references.

The author builds up an atmosphere of unease, isolation, frustration and helplessness well. She uses language in unusual and refreshing ways, with imagery that reminds me of Dickens – even when their imagery doesn’t entirely work it still… works. I especially relished how in the novel Rose’s lessons discuss classical women such as Dido and Medusa to illustrate women’s lives and how women have been treated and perceived from classical times to the present: this is feminism simply but cleverly presented, and I admit to seeing Medusa in a very different light! And the solution that Rose’s pupils find to the problem of Caldonbrae is like a tale from the classics: fateful, on an epic scale, all-consuming with no going back.

I had some issues with plausibility of plot elements and characters (eg Rose’s self-absorbed mother dwindled by illness and presumably her husband’s death does not seem like she could ever have been Rose’s mother the feminist activist). Yet there is a spark to Phoebe Wynne’s writing, the gothic tone is delicious, and I am keen to read more by her.

I received this ebook free from NetGalley in return for an honest review. UK publication: 18 February 2021 (Kindle, Audible) and 13 May 2021 (Hardback) by Quercus.


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