Madam by Phoebe Wynne: Gripping atmospherics of a horror classic - book review -
It should be a dream job for a young and ambitious Classics teacher… head of department at one of Britain’s oldest and most prestigious girls’ boarding schools.
But all is not what it seems at Caldonbrae Hall, perched high above the cliffs in a remote corner of Scotland, and 26-year-old Rose Christie will soon come face to face with the school’s dark and disturbing secrets.
Think Rebecca meets The Secret History and you’ll quickly catch the vibes from this electrifying gothic debut novel which delivers a sinister, simmering contemporary thriller with traditional horror tropes and an exciting feminist twist.
Brimming with chills, thrills, and mystery, Madam is a masterclass in spine-tingling suspense as former Classics teacher Wynne looks to lessons from the women of ancient Greek and Roman history to add an inspirational layer of parallels to her story.
For 150 years, Caldonbrae Hall has loomed high above the west coast cliffs of Scotland as a beacon of excellence in the ancestral castle of Lord William Hope. An illustrious boarding school for girls, its guiding qualities are confidence, courteousness, charm and courage, and promises that its pupils will emerge ‘resilient and ready to serve society.’
Little wonder that Rose Christie, a comprehensive school teacher from the south of England, is overwhelmed and more than a little nervous when she hears that she has been offered the job of Caldonbrae’s head of Classics.
But Rose is constrained by her selfish and demanding mother who needs nursing home care because of her multiple sclerosis, and whose bills Rose is struggling to pay. The move to the historic school and to Scotland will be a huge change from her current life but Rose is up for the challenge.
Rose will have her own flat above one of the boarding houses and the much increased salary will help pay for her mother’s care but Caldonbrae is a forbidding institution with its school buildings like a ‘great monster,’ arcane traditions, including calling teachers ‘Madam,’ unrivalled prestige, and scarily cool, vindictive, accusatory students.
Still unsure how she was given the job, and why her predecessor left so mysteriously and abruptly, Rose’s classroom becomes her haven, where the stories of fearless women from ancient Greek and Roman history ignite the curiosity of the girls she teaches and, unknowingly, the suspicions of the powers-that-be.
As Rose uncovers the dark heart of Caldonbrae, the lines between myth and reality grow ever more blurred, and it will be up to her – and the fierce young women she has come to love – to find a way to escape the fate the school has in store for them, before it’s too late.
Wynne holds her enthralling and deeply unsettling story on slow burn as we become immersed in the creepy life of the school before she turns up the heat for a final powerful thrust as Caldonbrae’s dark history and legacy – stretching back through several generations – finally explodes into a series of terrifying revelations.
In the style of many boarding school thrillers, the star of Madam is Caldonbrae itself, an old castle fortress – with its hulking mass, sharp corners, half-faced gargoyles and dungeon-like classrooms – which hides its decades-old secrets and casts a long shadow of over the current crop of pupils.
Like a sheep among the thorns and wolves, Rose is cornered and must use every ounce of her wit, wisdom and courage to battle her way through a wall of obstruction, abuse and fear if she is to not just save herself but the girls who have been placed in her care.
Beautifully embroidered with the names and stories of Greek and Roman mythology’s ancient and most powerful women – Dido, Agrippina, Lucretia an Antigone – and with all the gripping atmospherics of a horror classic, Wynne’s remarkable debut will be consumed in one sitting.
(Quercus, hardback, £14.99)