Madam (2021) – Phoebe Wynne

Title:Madam
Author:Phoebe Wynne
Publisher/s:Jonathan Ball Publishers/Quercus
Date published:2021
Star Rating:⭐⭐⭐
Disclaimer:Jonathan Ball Publishers kindly sent me a copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review.

Our protagonist Rose Christie is a young and dedicated teacher of Roman and Greek mythology. Struggling financially, being fully responsible for her invalid mother, and looking for a new adventure she applies to work as the Classics teacher at the prestigious and celebrated Caldonbrae Hall, a school for girls situated in the Scottish Highlands. Rose never expected to get the job, and when she does she has no idea how walking down those hallowed halls will be akin to falling down the rabbit hole.

Arriving at the school in the summer of 1992, with all her worldly possessions, and a passion for the courageous (and sometimes violent) women of the mythological world, it doesn’t take Rose very long to realize that there is something very off about Caldonbrae, or “Hope” as everyone else seems to call it.

The school was once the ancestral home of Lord William Hope who allegedly started the school after he was made a widower, and left to take care of six daughters – Verity, Temperance, Prudence, Clemency, Honour, and Chastity. When the house became a school, it was divided up into houses, and each house was named after each of Hope’s daughters. The school’s reputation had always seemed to be an upstanding one to Rose, and yet it can also be said that the school’s history and its rules and traditions also remained a bit of an enigma to anyone on the outside. In fact the longer Rose remains at Hope, she soon realizes that the surrounding villages have developed a fear-fueled loathing for the school, but know very little of what goes on inside.

Something just isn’t right. Right from the first day, Rose is denied a meeting with the Headmaster, and during her first few lessons, she discovers that the students are almost always confrontational, vindictive, and downright mean. It’s the early ’90s and yet everything about the school reeks of the early 1900s – as though time itself had stopped. The other teachers are unfriendly and suspicious of Rose, and everyone, including the few teachers she does manage to develop a friendship with, appears to be hiding something, something dark and disturbing, something that Rose can’t quite put her finger on.

As Rose navigates her way through awkward lessons, accusatory stares from the older teachers and flippant comments from the students, a young girl named Bethany becomes obsessed with her, and soon Rose learns that the teacher who previously held the Classics position disappeared quite suddenly and that Bethany has never been quite the same. Soon Rose is receiving threatening anonymous letters, and being warned by the staff (and the students) that she needs to keep her head down and just accept the ways things are, or else not only will she suffer the consequences, but her incapacitated mother will too.

Wynne’s narrative takes on dark academia bravely with the dark and harrowing atmosphere of a school lost in time, the young eager teacher who is made to feel she doesn’t belong, and the students who walk its halls arrogantly and unaware of the darkness that is slowly enveloping them. Throughout Wynne’s novel, there is the constant uneasy feeling that the staff, the students, and even the building itself are hiding a dark and twisted secret, and Rose will inevitably be the last soul to unlock the mystery.

Like a sickening fever dream, Madam’s secrets will be shocking, and the reader may struggle to comprehend at times the nonchalant way in which women are viewed and treated, and the very archaic views expressed by Rose’s students and peers. The novel despite being set in the ’90s retains a Gothic horror aspect, and this sense of true horror is most effectively expressed through the consistently unlikable characters, and subsequently in the terrible conclusion that Rose is forced to come to regarding the school’s true intentions.

Wynne is a fantastic writer, and her atmospheric novel has an enormous amount of potential and manages to start off really well, but unfortunately, there are parts that fall flat – mostly with regard to the students who seem to lack their own distinctive characters (perhaps a little too Stepfordy). That being said Madam is a page-turner, and is just on the right side of dark and twisted to keep avid lovers of Gothic literature turning the pages late into the night in anticipation of a (hopefully) shocking conclusion.

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