‘Caldonbrae was less of a school and more of an elite institution containing its own churning practices, a forever fortress turning within itself.’
Caldonbrae hall rises from the mists of the coast of northern Scotland, the salty sea air slapping you in the face, the cold wind pulling at your hair, the reaching hands of the past tugging at your skirts and whispering ‘Look here, look closer.’
When Classics teacher Rose Christie takes a job in the boarding school, Caldonbrae Hall, she does so because of its incredible academic reputation, high standing in top tier social circles and to get the money to care for her ailing mother. But when she enters the mouth of the beast, she finds it’s not as easy to leave as it was to enter…
Phoebe Wynne’s ‘Madam’ is a tense and atmospheric read that leaves you with a creeping sense that all is not quite right from the very first pages. Although set in the 90s, feminist Rose finds her modern ideas laughed at in the classroom, the girl’s wear Victorian gothic style dresses to class and there’s an unhealthy and unnerving obsession with tradition from day one. Despite its reputation, she finds the girls resistant to her teachings yet enamoured with their classes on etiquette, beauty and decorum.
As Rose is increasingly bewildered by the strange animosity she’s met with at her attempts to reread classic texts with a feminist slant, the sense that she has stepped back in time grows ever stronger. The girls seem impossibly glamorous yet totally brainwashed and the phrase ‘old money’ comes to mind, as if we have fallen back into colonial times and Victoria reigns and conquest is queen.
As the feeling that she may have wandered into a cult grows, Rose discovers Caldonbrae is holding darker secrets close to its chest; what happened to her predecessor that no one will talk about? Where do the girls disappear to for half the day when they should be at lessons?
And why won’t they let her leave the grounds?
A claustrophobic hand slowly tightens its grip on Rose and we feel the rising panic with her as we wonder; What on earth is going on in the echoing corridors of Caldonbrae?
Wynne’s setup of this compulsive narrative situation is clever, because we are so distracted by uncovering the institutions mysteries that we don’t realise that we are trapped in there with Rose until it’s too late to find our way out of the gripping pages. The ‘Institution’ does exactly that; institutionalise people. The upper class that grace these halls are the future generations of aristocrats, barristers and lord’s wives in training, subject to their own strange and extravagant traditions and social etiquette.
A formidable opponent, Caldonbrae has the same ‘lost in time’ feeling that Ishiguro creates in ‘Never Let Me Go’’s Hailsham – that sinister, creeping sensation of everything around you being defamiliarised. The strange dissonance in eras – the 1990s vs the late 1800s – leaves us reeling and disoriented, frustrated at the lack of agency we see among the girls that Rose desperately tries to instil free thinking into.
This book is utterly haunting. You think of it even when it’s far away tucked under your pillow. The characters dog your steps throughout the day, asking you questions about themselves
‘Why am I such a troubled character, reader?’ Bethany tugs at your sleeve
‘And where have I disappeared to?’ Asks Rose’s predecessor.
‘And where do I fit into all of this?’ Rose asks. And you stare back at them helplessly and wish you had more time to read to answer them.
The mystery will keep you guessing and the characterization is so strong, that we feel as helpless as Rose does, constantly turned around, looking in the wrong direction, confused and intrigued by everything around us. A study in abuse, Caldonbrae isolates us from all outside contact before we know it and controls us using the things we hold most dear. Misinformation and misdirection abound as one by one, freedom, agency and our voices are stripped from us and the worst part is, it happens frighteningly quickly, before you even realise there’s a hand around your throat.
And while the institution is a dark enemy to face – the terror is in the quiet gentility of their violence and control – they’re an easy villain to dislike and Rose is easy to side with. An interesting direction to take it in might have been to make Caldonbrae’s agenda a little more understandable to us – thus scaring us further. The story’s end becomes quite black and white – which works well to show the horror of what’s happening as well as giving us a decisive ending. But I can’t help but wonder what other kind of statements Wynne might have made had she pushed the boundaries a little with Rose’s feminist agenda or lifted the curtain on enigmatic characters like Caldonbrae's headmaster and deputy head, and their reasons for being so on board.
That being said, our slow burning suspicions quickly change into a heart-galloping panic as we realise what is really happening in this place, and although some of you may guess at some of the mysteries before Rose does, you will not be ready for the extent of the reveal that occurs. The threads begin to tighten together, creating a terrifying tapestry of degeneration and wrongness that accompanies the glittering dresses and perfect manners.
This has been one of my favourite reads of 2021 so far and I found it thoroughly addictive, sickeningly disturbing at times and endlessly fascinating as we peer down the dark corridors with Rose and hope we make it to the other end unscathed.