Book #02

Madam by Phoebe Wynne

For 150 years, Caldonbrae Hall has sat as a beacon of excellence in an ancestral castle. A boarding school for girls, it promises a future where its pupils will emerge 'resilient and ready to serve society'.
Rose Christie, a 26-year-old Classics teacher, is the first new hire for the school in over a decade. At first, Rose feels overwhelmed in the face of this elite establishment, but soon after her arrival she begins to understand that she may have more to fear than her own ineptitude.
When Rose stumbles across the secret circumstances surrounding the abrupt departure of her predecessor - a woman whose ghost lingers over everything and who no one will discuss - she realises that there is much more to this institution than she has been led to believe.

There is something utterly claustrophobic and unsettling about this novel. Rose is a teacher with experience in state schools, and is offered a job in a girls-only boarding school in Scotland - Caldonbrae. It’s prestigious, one of the top schools in the country, and boasts excellent prospects for the girls who are educated there.

Despite being set in the early nineties, Rose seems to be transported into the late 1800s as soon as she sets foot in Caldonbrae. Antiquated ideas and dialogue, an odd feeling of submission, and a lack of independence for all permeates the walls. Tradition must be adhered to, modern progressions are ignored entirely, and the girls seem to be heavily indoctrinated into the system. Rose soon finds that leaving the school, even to visit the nearby village, is frowned upon, alongside her more ‘modern’ ideas for the girls’ advancement in their careers and lifestyles. Feelings of imprisonment soon creep in, and small hints as to the true nature of the school create unbridled feelings of tension.

I was swept along with the mysteries of this archaic school and its belief systems, but I did find the pace and structure to be slightly slow and jarring. Wynne flips around in her narrative regularly, with some sections seeming to be quite irrelevant. There’s a lot of moments of Rose pondering the same things continuously, or walking in moody weather with no real crux to the thing.

The characters, particularly the students, seemed a bit one-dimensional, but I am prepared to put that down to how the school was trying to model them into perfection. Of course, Rose was placed there by Wynne as a conflict, to rise up against the moral problem, but there was no real explanation to why the school had chosen her, despite closeted reasons being hinted at. If there are secrets to be kept, why recruit a young independent thinker who has a high likelihood of attempting to overthrow the whole thing?

Nonetheless, this is a great read for uncovering a mystery. There’s a real creeping dread throughout all of Wynne’s prose, and her cloak and dagger narrative was very well executed. A really disconcerting idea that all is not as it seems in boarding schools, or indeed, anywhere.