Tuesday, 27 December 2016

The Magdalen Girls

Author: V.S Alexander
Genre: Historical Fiction
Type: ebook
Source: NetGalley
Publisher: Kensington
First Published: December 27, 2016
First Line: "The nuns convened by the doorway like a swarm of black flies."

Book Description from GoodReadsDublin, 1962. Within the gated grounds of the convent of The Sisters of the Holy Redemption lies one of the city’s Magdalen Laundries. Once places of refuge, the laundries have evolved into grim workhouses. Some inmates are “fallen” women—unwed mothers, prostitutes, or petty criminals. Most are ordinary girls whose only sin lies in being too pretty, too independent, or tempting the wrong man. Among them is sixteen-year-old Teagan Tiernan, sent by her family when her beauty provokes a lustful revelation from a young priest.

Teagan soon befriends Nora Craven, a new arrival who thought nothing could be worse than living in a squalid tenement flat. Stripped of their freedom and dignity, the girls are given new names and denied contact with the outside world. The Mother Superior, Sister Anne, who has secrets of her own, inflicts cruel, dehumanizing punishments—but always in the name of love. Finally, Nora and Teagan find an ally in the reclusive Lea, who helps them endure—and plot an escape. But as they will discover, the outside world has dangers too, especially for young women with soiled reputations.

Told with candor, compassion, and vivid historical detail, The Magdalen Girls is a masterfully written novel of life within the era’s notorious institutions—and an inspiring story of friendship, hope, and unyielding courage.

My Rating: 2.5 stars

My Review:  I love it when I can learn a bit about history while reading a fictional tale.  In The Magdalen Girls, I learned about the Magdalen laundries during the 1960's - a place where women were imprisoned after being deemed 'fallen women' sometimes merely based on speculation and rumour of their unsavoury behaviour.  These laundries were instituted to 'rehabilitate' women who were accused of being promiscuous, reckless, having children out of wedlock, being prostitutes etc.  Their 'rehabilitation' included hard labour, forced prayer, physical and emotional abuse at the hands of nuns, minimal nourishment and ultimately no future. 

These laundries were barbaric places and provide an interesting backdrop and premise for this book. It's appalling that these laundries, which were often run by Catholic nuns, still occurred into the 19th century (with the last of these laundries closing in the late 1990's!).  They occurred not only Ireland but also in the US, Canada, Scotland, England and Australia and were used by families to deal with their daughters who they deemed wayward and not falling into line with family/religious ideals. 

While I applaud the author for bringing this difficult part of history to light the plot fell short for me.  Both the plot and dialogue were more simplistic than I had expected.  There were a couple of escape attempts as well as a twist but they felt predictable and came off as lackluster rather than exciting.  There was the addition of a supernatural element but that felt awkward at best, was only alluded to and didn't play a big enough role.  In the end, this book read more like a light historical fiction novel even though it deals with very serious subject matter.

The character development was also weaker than expected with Nora and Teagan, the two main characters, having such similar personalities that they started to blend together making it hard to connect with them individually.  Lea was the most interesting character but she fell on the outskirts of the main plot. I would have liked to get inside her head to learn about why she felt the way she did about her life at the laundry.

In the end, this was an eye-opening read that educated me about the horrific acts that were committed against young women for many decades by the Catholic Church.  While there were some aspects that were weaker than expected, I applaud the author for bringing this part of history to readers.  I encourage people to read the epilogue for more information regarding these laundries.

Disclaimer:  My sincere thanks to Kensington Books and NetGalley for providing me with an advanced complimentary e-book copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

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