“Thrilling debut, reminiscent of Du Maurier. The narrative, written in precise prose with beautifully crafted characters, barrels along at pace, leaving us breathless at each twist and turn. A truly wonderful read.”
NO MAJOR SPOILERS
Madam is the first novel of Phoebe Wynne. The main character, Rose Christie, was recruited by prestigious private school Caldonbrae Hall and has decided to accept their job offer to be the head of Classics. The school was founded in 1842 by Lord William Hope and has recently celebrated its 150th anniversary (the story begins in 1992). The Founder continues to exert his influence even after 150 years, and his prominently displayed portrait maintains his very real presence in the school.
In order to reach her new place of employment Rose must travel from Kent in the south of England to the north of Scotland, over 500 miles away, so that she can begin teaching Latin classes to the school’s students. The best way to describe this book would be to say that if The Handmaid’s Tale took place in an exclusive girls’ boarding school, the result would be Madam. While initially relieved to have secured such a seemingly desirable position, Rose starts to realize that things are not as they should be at Caldonbrae Hall. Students are not allowed to address the teachers by their surname, which has a leveling effect of reducing every teacher to either an anonymous Madam or Sir depending on their sex. As the story progresses, Rose discovers more and more unsettling aspects about the curriculum. Academic classes seem to take a back seat to other oddly-named classes, such as Conversation, Discipline, and Worship, and the girls constantly refer to the need to build their Value. In an effort to instill some independence and critical thinking skills in her young students, she shares the stories of several women from classical Latin literature, such as Dido, Agrippina, and Medea. Rather than the usual portrayal of these women as just victims, Rose attempts to show that they had some control over their fate in the choices they made.
Throughout the novel Rose is haunted by the fate of her predecessor, Jane. She learns that one of her students, the troubled Bethany, had some kind of attachment to Jane and is determined to discover the whole story. When she eventually learns Jane’s fate and also the details of what is really going on at the school, the effect on her is devastating.
Although I suspected what was going on before the revelation came, the suspense level was still maintained throughout the book as I had no idea how everything was going to be resolved. I thought this was an impressive debut novel and am looking forward to the next book from this author.
Added 31st August 2021