This three-part novel begins in 1915, when a girl goes missing from a country finishing school while on an Easter treasure hunt. This is presented in the form of a true-crime story published two years later, with the names changed to protect the innocent. The second section, dated 11 years later, and also submitted for publication, but rejected, is by the same (anonymous) author, providing a much fuller background and makes up the bulk of the book, setting up a tragic finish.
I submit this review for Bev’s 2014 Silver Age Vintage Mystery Challenge and Patti Abbott’s Friday’s Forgotten Books meme, which today is being hosted by Evan Lewis at his Davy Crockett’s Almanack.
“You can trust me,” she whispered fervently. “I will never betray you. I swear, I will never tell a soul.”
The widow Madame Pennington, originally from France, has set up a school for girls in the country and finds that she is even more in demand once the Great War breaks out. In 1915 she is joined by Madeleine, her sister’s 17-tear-old daughter, sent over to escape from the conflict. She helps out at the school and becomes the object of adoration and fascination for her fellow pupils, cadets at the nearby military academy and even the local doctor (with whom Madame is besotted). In the second part of the narrative, dated from 1926, the author (who carefully masks their identity through a third person narration) fills in many of the blanks relating to Madeleine’s time at the school and her ultimate disappearance, but tantalising ends before we discover what happened to her. The final section is from 1939 when the school has been requisitioned to support mobilisation in the Second World War. The author ultimately finds a long-hidden diary and gives us the full explanation of why the girl vanished – and what became of her, and the others, at the school.
“Mrs Pennington has introduced the game of hockey. It will interfere with child-bearing. Mark my words.”
Freeman does a great job here of evoking the atmosphere of rigid but not stifling conformity within the school and the small village that surrounds it. The book provides a stead accumulation of often bizarre rituals, drawn lightly but with great prevision, depicting tiny details of life in the teens, from the deportment of the girls when going to church and Madame’s secret feelings about chocolate, to the terrifying cleaning strategies of the staff. Ultimately she provides an engrossing depiction of a time long gone by as told by a narrator who only gets nearer to the truth the further they get from the events themselves, ultimately spanning almost a quarter of a century in the process. It is very convincing in portraying a time when superstition (especially a belief in ghosts and spiritualism) went hand-in-hand with new technology such as the aircraft in which Madeleine’s beau trains to fight int he war and the portable camera with which she is photographed shortly before vanishing. One of the best scenes in fact combines the two, with a group of girls attempting to hold a séance, which involves a bible, in the room used to develop photographs, thus combining religion, the supernatural and science all in one go – no wonder one of the girls gets terrified and breaks down!
This is a short novel but at 150 pages seems just about right, its precise prose often reminding me of a cross between Muriel Spark and Anita Brookner to produce a multilayered story that is ultimately very sad but always riveting, even if ultimately the truth seems not to set anybody free. It did remind me a bit of Joan Lindsay’s Picnic at Hanging Rock, which is also set a private girls’ school at the beginning of the century during a public holiday (in this case St Valentine’s Day) and deals with a mysterious disappearance; but then a girls’ school is hardly uncharted fictional territory and Freeman deserves a lot of credit for handling it with such conviction and cool precision, nicely capturing the change in the narration as the decades pass.
The mighty John F.Norris reviewed this book over at his blog, Pretty Sinister Books, which is why I submit this review for Bev’s 2014 Silver Age Vintage Mystery Challenge bingo in the ‘reviewed by another challenger’ category: