I had never heard of the historical phenomenon of the Magdalen laundries until I read the plot synopsis for The Magdalen Girls. Learning about them was equal parts fascinating and horrifying. They were essentially penitentiary work-houses for women who were deemed by society to be ‘fallen’ or ‘sinners’ for a variety of reasons that today seem baffling. The worst ‘sin’ of many of the women who were sent by their families to be relegated to these institutions was often just to have had a child out of wedlock.
Throughout both distant and more recent history, women across the globe have often been hidden in secreted locations when finding themselves unexpectedly pregnant. The difference with the Magdalen laundries is primarily that the women were forced to work in extremely hard conditions for their keep, while being condemned through bodily mortification bordering on torture for their ‘sins’.
V.S. Alexander brings this troubling chapter of history to life in The Magdalen Girls through three very relatable young characters that find themselves in the Sister of the Holy Redemption convent for different reasons. The book is both an interesting historical commentary on the laundries, as well as a novel about the more universal themes of friendship, right and wrong, identity and personal freedom.
The Magdalen Girls
Published: December 27th 2016
Plot Teaser (from Goodreads)
Dublin, 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. Finally, Nora and Teagan find an ally in the reclusive Lea, who helps them endure—and plot an escape.
What I Liked
The historically factual premise. Like I mentioned in the intro, I was unfamiliar with the story of the Magdalen Sisters until I read V.S. Alexander’s book. It was interesting to learn of the historical details of life in some of these institutions through the stories of Teagan, Nora and Leah – the three young teenage girls who are the novel’s main characters and who find themselves captive in the monastery of the Sisters of the Holy Redemption. From the process through which the girls are inducted into the monastery through the shearing of their hair and the donning of uncomfortable and unflattering uniforms, to the slave-like labor that they are forced to undertake, to the terrible living conditions in which they find themselves – V.S. Alexander brings to life the reality of the Magdalen laundries in very realistic and disturbing detail. This sets the scene for some of the heavier human elements of the novel, like the themes of the bonds of family, the nature of human sexuality, and the role of the Church in the lives of women.
The three main characters. The fact that the three main characters in the novel – Teagan, Nora and Leah – are teenagers around 16 years old made me worried that the book would feel too YA for me. I typically associate YA literature with a superficiality of themes and an overall lighter feel that doesn’t correspond to the kind of high-brow literary fiction I tend to prefer. I realize that this is an outmoded view of YA fiction, but I was worried going into the book that I wouldn’t be able to relate to the main characters. Though some of Teagan, Nora and Leah’s thought-processes definitely reveal their young age, the author was able to develop their characters with a complexity that made them human and life-like to me. Each of the three girls is different from the others in personality, and also in her circumstances, and their age does not detract from the seriousness of the themes covered in the novel. I came to feel for each of the girls and root for them to be able to escape their captivity.
The pacing and twists in the plot. The Magdalen Girls was a quick read that kept me engaged with a story that developed with a consistent rhythm throughout. There were no parts of the novel that lagged, and the author alternated the right amount of dialogue, inner thoughts and descriptive passages. I particularly liked how at the beginning, the author initially follows Teagan and then Nora individually when they are still living with their families, before he joins their story once they are united with Leah in the convent. There are a couple major plot twists that affect all three characters, and though I wouldn’t say that they were hugely surprising, they were significant enough to keep the plot interesting and provide further character development. The ending of the novel was relatively unexpected for me as well.
What I Didn’t Like
Romance novel like in parts. I was pleasantly surprised that The Magdalen Girls actually addressed this heavy historical chapter with depth, humanity and emotion, and like I said, I did build a feeling of connection with the main characters as a reader. However, parts of the novel definitely bordered into romance novel territory or felt over-dramatic in a way that I think really took away from the rest of the novel for me. Particularly in dealing with Teagan and Nora’s relationships with men outside of the convent, the way in which the author detailed some of the sexual interactions between characters was cheesy and unrealistic. It may be that as an older male author, V.S. Alexander showed his inability to really connect with what moments like the ones he described may have actually felt or looked like for his young female teenage characters. There is also a story line which follows the head nun of the convent and ties into some past regrets she has, and I felt that the scenes involving this story line were very melodramatic and in some ways unnecessary to the success of the novel.
Interesting fictionalized account of a lesser known chapter of history, with three young and captivating protagonists and sufficient plot twist to keep a reader engaged.
About The Author
V.S. Alexander (real name Michael Meeske) is an ardent student of history with a strong interest in music and the visual arts. Some of V.S.’s writing influences include Shirley Jackson, Oscar Wilde, Daphne du Maurier, or any work by the exquisite Brontë sisters. V.S. lives in Florida and is at work on a second historical novel for Kensington. He writes under several different names.
Have you read The Magdalen Girls? What did you think? Let me know in the comments.
You can also read other recent reviews on the blog including for historical fiction novels The Underground Railroad and News Of The World by Paulette Jiles, memoir Under The Tuscan Sun by Frances Mayes, astronomy related titles Hidden Figures by Margot Shetterly and The Glass Universe by Dava Sobel, and medical memoir Working Stiff by Judy Melinek MD and T.J. Mitchell.
Please note this post contains affiliate links from Book Depository. I received an review copy of The Magdalen Girls through Net Galley in exchange for an honest review.