Madam by Phoebe Wynne

gothic | intense | atmospheric | immersive | thought-provoking | unsettling | dark

what it says on the cover …

For 150 years, Caldonbrae Hall has loomed high above the Scottish cliffs as a beacon of excellence in the ancestral castle of Lord William Hope. A boarding school for girls, it promises that its pupils will emerge ‘resilient and ready to serve society’.

Into its illustrious midst steps Rose Christie, a 26-year-old Classics teacher and new head of department. Rose is overwhelmed by the institution: its arcane traditions, unrivalled prestige, and terrifyingly cool, vindictive students. Her 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.

But as Rose uncovers the darkness that beats at the very heart of Caldonbrae, the lines between myth and reality grow ever more blurred. It will be up to Rose – 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 is too late.

Perfect for fans of Margaret Atwood and Madeline Miller, Madam is a darkly feminist tale with an electrifying cast of heroines you won’t soon forget.

PUBLISHED: 13th May 2020
SHELF: Suspense | Thriller
AUTHOR: Phoebe Wynne
PUBLISHER: Quercus Books
FORMATS: Hardback | Kindle

my review

Madam is the author’s stylishly disturbing debut novel; one that pulses with a discordant energy, and beautifully captures the malign claustrophobia of the gothic noir genre.  The suspenseful, smouldering plot boasts real, thought-provoking substance beneath the surface, but what’s most impressive is the degree to which the uncomfortable notional details of this frank and feisty book ring true.

The glossy, 150th anniversary prospectus for Caldonbrae Hall depicts an impressive, highly-esteemed, private boarding school, attended by the daughters of the country’s most influential and affluent families. Situated on a rugged peninsula in the north east of Scotland, hundreds of miles stand between Rose and the next step in her career as a classics teacher – both literally and figuratively; as the only daughter of a staunch feminist mother, Caldonbrae stands for an elitist privilege that conflicts with Rose’s own values.  Rose is closer in age to the girls than she is to the youngest of the teaching staff, but with her ailing mother’s unexpected encouragement she accepts the position, making her the first external staff appointment for over a decade.

Caldonbrae lauds itself as a highly esteemed institution whose grandiose motto ‘puellae mundi (girls of the world)’ suggests an ambitious and accomplished outlook. It’s a school with far-reaching influence, and almost as soon as Rose settles into her cosy staff flat, she learns her mother has been moved from a state-run care facility to a well-appointed private nursing home.  But, like an enigmatic fever-dream, and with some sharply-honed twists of the author’s knife, the perks and promise distort into something intensely sinister, and Rose slowly awakens to the darker truth of the school’s motto. Horrified by what she learns, Rose strives to emancipate her students, drawing on the Greek and Roman heroines in her lessons to inspire self-expression and independence.

The plot of Madam is urged forwards by a character ensemble in which there’s no such thing as an incidental role – from the tight-lipped teaching staff and watchful housemistresses, to the capricious and often cruel girls themselves.  As the reader, we inhabit the character of Rose; she’s our eyes and ears and moral compass in this scenario, and I felt her outrage and reactions to the abomination of Caldonbrae’s system were authentic and well-written. Occasionally, I found her inaction and naivety a bit incongruous with an otherwise astute and intelligent young woman, but I enjoyed them as contrivance to prolong the tension and obscurity. But it’s in its more lucidmoments that Madam really makes its mark, with Bethany and Jane perfectly cast as the faces that taunt Rose, reminding her how much she stands to lose.

Madam has been written with a sumptuous and all-consuming cinematic richness … were Jane Eyre, or Daphne du Maurier’s ‘Rebecca’ to glide along the corridors in any of the chapters they would’ve appeared entirely indigenous. The fortress-like setting crackles with a portentous disquietude, unwelcoming both as an outside observer, and for any newcomer struggling to settle in.  It’s a clamouring isolation that neither Rose’s secretive colleagues, the stepford-like secretarial coven, nor the snide and entitled girls do anything to assuage. Nor does the author’s sublime use of symbolism to frame the oppressive atmosphere; the foreboding weather, restless sea, and hostile peninsular make sure the reader never gets the chance to settle comfortably.

The plot generously indulges the reader with more than one mystery; what exactly became of Rose’s predecessor, Jane, and what was her inextricable and doomed connection to Bethany? What hold does the school have over its teachers that ensures their unquestioning loyalty? How have the deaths of two pupils been kept so quiet? What is the significance of the school’s tiered house system, and what’s the truth behind the clandestine sixth-form syllabus?  From its dramatic opening prologue to the welcome reprieve of its epilogue, the story touches on some distinctly grown-up and shocking topics … Mallory Towers, this is not. 

Madam is absolutely gorgeous! The plot doesn’t twist as such, but it progresses with a satisfyingly chilling inevitability that draws the reader in with an unforgiving sense of entrapment. Its off-kilter, dreamlike dissonance immediately reminded me of Amazon TV’s 2018 adaptation of Joan Lindsay’s novel, Picnic At Hanging Rock … if you missed it, I sincerely recommend you remedy that. And if you’re seeking a novel to feed your appetite for unsettling, claustrophobic suspense, with an intelligent and thought-provoking subtext, then I recommend you look no further than Madam.

Thank you to the publishers, Quercus Books, and NetGalley for granting me this copy of Madam in return for an honest review.

If this book sounds like one you’d love to read too, here’s a selection of purchase links:
To buy direct from the author/publisher, click ☞ here
To support independent local bookshops, click ☞ here
To feed your Waterstones ‘plus’ loyalty card, click ☞ here
And of course, here is the ubiquitous Amazon link

author bio

Phoebe Wynne studied Classics at Royal Holloway, University of London and Education at King’s College, London. She worked in education for eight years, teaching Classics in the south of England as well as English Language and Literature in Paris, France. Phoebe left the classroom to focus on her writing; she went on to hone her craft in writing classes in Los Angeles and in London. 

Phoebe has dual British and French nationality and spends her time between England and France. ‘Madam’ is her debut novel.

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2 thoughts on “Madam by Phoebe Wynne

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