Before the month is finished, I’m hoping to share reviews of the books I read on holiday. So far, I’ve shared with you my review of Out of Love by Hazel Hayes and The Ex Talk by Rachel Lynn Solomon. I took a bit of a detour from romantic fiction from this point, in favour of a darkly gothic book I’d seen plenty of people rave about.
For 150 years, high above rocky Scottish cliffs, Caldonbrae Hall has sat untouched, a beacon of excellence in an old ancestral castle. A boarding school for girls, it promises that the young women lucky enough to be admitted will emerge “resilient and ready to serve society.”
Into its illustrious midst steps Rose Christie: a 26-year-old Classics teacher, Caldonbrae’s new head of the department, and the first hire for the school in over a decade. At first, Rose is overwhelmed to be invited into this institution, whose prestige is unrivaled. But she quickly discovers that behind the school’s elitist veneer lies an impenetrable, starkly traditional culture that she struggles to reconcile with her modernist beliefs—not to mention her commitment to educating “girls for the future.”
It also doesn’t take long for Rose to suspect that there’s more to the secret circumstances surrounding the abrupt departure of her predecessor—a woman whose ghost lingers everywhere—than anyone is willing to let on. In her search for this mysterious former teacher, Rose instead uncovers the darkness that beats at the heart of Caldonbrae, forcing her to confront the true extent of the school’s nefarious purpose, and her own role in perpetuating it.
I won’t lie, Madam was hit and miss for me. I’d been so excited to read it (in part because it had been compared to The Handmaids Tale, a book I’m not massively fond of due to studying it in school but I’d still say it’s pretty good) but, as I read on, the excitement lessened.
There’s no denying that Wynne is great at creating a setting. Despite only having been to Scotland once, and never having been to boarding school, the picture Wynne paints of both is so detailed and vivid you can’t help but feel you’re there. Even as I read this book on a sun bed in mid-twenties degree heat, I could still feel the chill in the air and the tension in the atmosphere.
After I finished university, the one thing I knew for certain was that I didn’t want to be a teacher. Reading this book only confirmed my stance, as I felt secondhand stress for Rose as she dealt with unruly children and annoying staff. In this book, not only do the students learn, Wynne incorporates rich and detailed references to heroines of Greek myth so — if you are as uneducated where that is concerned as I am — you learn about them along the way. As someone who knows very little about Greek myth, I appreciated these parts and — since reading — I think I’ll do more research on this area.
As someone who ensured she could talk about feminism in every university essay she wrote, I really appreciated the feminist edge to this story. I feel like there’s been a lot of similar stories where this viewpoint hasn’t been explored, or in the past hasn’t been allowed to be explored so reading this was a breath of fresh air.
Although it proves to be annoying sometimes, I won’t deny that — since school — I love an unreliable narrator. Yes, they are notoriously annoying but the narrative holes mean that (unless you have a talent for guessing where plots are going to go, which I more than likely don’t) you tend to learn things as and when the narrator does, so there’s a sense of suspense and intrigue I don’t tend to get from the books I usually read. Rose was extremely unreliable, as a new starter at a place she knows minimal about, but so too are a lot of the secondary characters. This slowed the pace of the book down and kept me guessing until the end.
The fact that this book kept me guessing meant that I had no idea how unpredictable and downright weird this plot would get. No spoilers, obviously, but — when all was revealed — I didn’t get the sense of satisfaction that I thought I would. I just found it all a bit weird and, even on the books conclusion, I felt like there was still more I needed to know.
Though it was rich in detail and description, the old school beliefs and equally old fashioned secondary characters had me second guessing quite frequently. It’s clear that the book is set in 1993, through various timely pop culture references that only serve to confuse the secondary characters and showcase how different Rose is, yet it reads like fiction set in the 1800s.
I can see why this book has drawn comparisons to Jane Eyre. Much like that book, I think this one will prove to be a different reading experience for each person. Some will love it, some won’t and others — like me — will find themselves somewhere in the middle.
You can buy this book here.