I had heard of the Magdalen girls before and that they were affiliated to the Catholic Church, but I had not read about them. When browsing the new titles in the library catalogue, I came across The Magdalen Girls by V. S. Alexander and did not hesitate to put it on hold because I was curious.
The story in the novel takes place in Dublin, Ireland in 1962 within the gated grounds of the convent of The Sisters of the Holy Redemption. The convent is one of the city’s Magdalen Laundries, an institution set up by the Catholic Church to help reform girls and women. Once places of refuge for women in trouble, these laundries evolved into grim workhouses with strict and severe regimes where women toiled without respite. Some inmates were “fallen” women – unwed mothers, prostitutes, or petty criminals – . but most were ordinary girls whose only sin lay in being too pretty, too independent, or in tempting the wrong man. Many of these women were forced into these institutions by the Catholic Church and families who did not want the girls living with them.
Alexander’s story centres around Teagan Tiernan, a sixteen year old who is sent to the Laundry by her family when her beauty provokes lust in a young priest. At the convent, Teagan befriends Nora Craven, another girl who has been sent to the workhouse by her family. The girls are stripped of their freedom and dignity, given new names and denied contact with the outside world. The Mother Superior, Sister Anne, inflicts cruel and dehumanizing punishments on the girls in the name of love. Nora and Teagan find an ally in the reclusive Lea, a current resident who helps them endure their stay. Together they think of an escape plan.
My teaser comes from the beginning of the novel on Teagan’s first day at the convent:
“She instinctively raised her hands to her head. She hadn’t thought about losing her hair, but it made sense after seeing the Magdalens at breakfast. She stroked the blonde strands, which were soon to be gone, cropped close to her head like the other girls. She was a prisoner. In history class, she had read about people who were held in World War II camps. They had been robbed of their identities and their possessions. She shivered at he thought. Much like those prisoners, she was dependant on The Sisters of the Holy Redemption, her captors, for her food, clothing and shelter – until she could escape. The notion smoldered inside her. Escape. But Sister Mary Elizabeth was right about some things. It would be impossible to walk out of the convent. She would have to plan an escape, carefully and intelligently, waiting for the right time.” (p57, Kensington Books, 2017)
I enjoyed this well-written novel from start to finish. A story of friendship between three girls is woven into the historical facts of this time period. I kept hoping that Teagan, Nora and Lea would survive their experiences. And kept thinking that I am thankful not to be living in the 1960s in Dublin as a Catholic girl. Reading this novel informed me a little more about the Magdalen laundries in Ireland as well as giving many hours of reading enjoyment. If historical fiction is your preferred read, you will enjoy this sincere and compassionate story.
What are you reading this week? Feel free to share a few sentences from the book in the comments.
© Colline Kook-Chun, 2016
(This post is linked to Ambrosia’s Teaser Tuesdays at The Purple Booker)