#BookReview Madam by Phoebe Wynne @QuercusBooks

MadamAbout the Book

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.

A darkly feminist tale pitched against a haunting backdrop, and populated by an electrifying cast of heroines, Madam will keep readers engrossed until the breathtaking conclusion.

Format: ebook (340 pages)                  Publisher: Quercus
Publication date: 18th February 2021 Genre: Contemporary Fiction

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My Review

The book opens with a prologue that, to my mind, does just what a prologue should do: raise all sorts of questions that linger in your mind as you read the rest of the book and be something you feel compelled to return to and read again once you’ve finished the book.

In Caldonbrae Hall, the author has certainly created a creepy setting for a story. If I was Rose I’d have turned right around at the first of glimpse of its exterior, and certainly once I’d seen its labyrinthine interior. Since Rose is at Caldonbrae to take up the post of Head of Classics, the reference to a labyrinth, such as the one in which the Minotaur roamed, seems appropriate.

Given the school’s exclusivity and prestige as well as the fact she’s the first new member of teaching staff in over a decade, Rose might have expected some initial trouble fitting in. However, she’s unprepared for the strange nature of the school’s practices, such as the fact teachers are addressed as either ‘Madam’ or ‘Sir’ and not by their actual names, or the old-fashioned uniforms worn by the girls. In fact, the whole school feels like it’s caught in a time-warp. Rose is also taken aback by the chilly attitude, even outright hostility, of the pupils in some of her classes.

More like a prison than a boarding school, Caldonbrae has a disturbingly sentient quality. At one point, as Rose makes her way to a class, she compares its long passageways to the bronchioles of lungs, likening the school to a great monster. And in one of her rare excursions outside, Rose perceives the lighted windows of the school building as “like a thousand eyes staring out at her accusingly”. And if you thought Mrs Danvers, the housekeeper in Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, was creepy, just wait until you meet the Secretaries who manage every detail of daily life at Caldonbrae – and beyond.

Rose’s discovery of what’s really going on at the school and the nature of the ‘strange, ugly destiny’ the girls are being prepared for didn’t come as a great surprise to this reader. Safe to say, it encompasses the worst excesses of patriarchy, nepotism and privilege. For Rose herself it comes with the addition of emotional blackmail and veiled threats about what might ensue should she disclose to the outside world what she has learned.

Punctuating the narrative are excerpts from classical texts describing the lives of Greek and Roman women, both real and mythological. All are examples of women who asserted their independence but died, by their own hand or by the hand of others, as a consequence. I admired Rose’s valiant attempts to pass on her own enthusiasm for her subject to her pupils and to convince them they too have other options in life. Can Rose fan the flames of rebellion in the girls or will they smoulder into nothing?

Combining elements of suspense with a distinctly dystopian feel, Madam makes for an unsettling but utterly compelling read, and an impressive debut.

I received a uncorrected proof copy courtesy of Quercus. Madam will be published as an ebook and audiobook on 18th February and in hardcover on 13th May 2021.

In three words: Creepy, intense, immersive

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phoebe wynneAbout the Author

Phoebe Wynne worked in education for eight years, teaching Classics in the UK and English Language and Literature in Paris. She left the classroom to focus on her writing, and went on to hone her craft in Los Angeles and in London. Madam is her first novel. She is both British and French, and currently spends her time between France and England. (Photo credit: Publisher author page)

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