Madam by Phoebe Wynne – Book review

One thing lockdown did for my reading habits was cement a love of Gothic fiction. So imagine my delight to read Madam by Phoebe Wynne. It’s a contemporary Gothic novel (well, set in the 1990s, rather than the 1890s) that expertly weaves in elements from the past. Often times it feels like you’re not sure which era this book is set in. And that’s one of the reasons it’s so enticing.

Opening sentence: The merriment of moments before has dissolved into panic; chairs were dragged back, wine glasses tumbled to the floor.

A modern classic

Lead character Rose Christie teaches Classical Civilisation, and is the newest teacher that Caldonbrae Hall girls’ boarding school had had in many years. Her predecessor was sacked in mysterious circumstances, just one of the secrets that Rose goes on to get to the bottom of.

Classics is more than language – more than history, literature and society. It’s an entire culture and philosophy… a civilisation that we still continue to imitate today, without even realising it.

Caldonbrae Hall (also known, ironically it turns out, as Hope after the surname of its founder) is an imposing and impressive school on the remote Scottish coast. Very much a place of tradition and where patriarchy rules the roost, it is referred to as a monster several times in the book, for multiple reasons.

The school (or rather, the people that run it) also has a sinister sixth sense when it come to Rose and her personal affairs. All staff live on the ground, so it’s very much a contained situation. Once you arrive, it’s very hard to leave… Rose feels uncomfortable and soon discovers that something a lot more sinister is happening when you scratch the surface.

‘It’s a terrible place, but of course you know that.’
Rose drew back.
‘What on earth do you mean?’

Feminism is at the heart of all good Gothic stories

I loved how Phoebe Wynne wove the classic Greek stories throughout. Giving us tales of mythical women, sometimes tragic, all inspiring and all enriching Rose’s story of rebellion and feminism. I really enjoyed how this storyline played out in Madam.

We haven’t come very far from the ancient world, and some of the ancient women really were fantastic…

The joy of reading Gothic stories is you know how they will play out – they essentially follow a set of rules – but the way they do this is what makes them unique. I did not expect the ending of Madam – on several points and in a page-turningly thrilling way.

From the classical text references to the high-adrenaline climax, Madame is definitely Gothic fiction with a difference – highly recommend you give it a whirl.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

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