A search for author V.S. Alexander’s background yields the Amazon page for his (or her) debut novel, The Magdalen Girls, and a short paragraph of details which includes the author’s literary influences: “Shirley Jackson, Oscar Wilde, Daphne du Maurier, or any work by the exquisite Bronte sisters.” That these authors inspired this one should come as so surprise—The Magdalen Girls is a story of repression, of history slowly revealed, of reality transforming from one gothic horror to another. To write a novel about the “laundries” of 1950s Ireland depends on that brand of darkness, certainly, and Alexander pulls the curtains as tight against the light as he can—but to the point, perhaps, that most of his story’s intended expression disappears from sight, leaving the reader somewhat uninvolved with the emotional truth of the horrors themselves.
And there are many horrors occupying Alexander’s attention. The forceful imprisonment of young women at convents, their snatched infants, the abuse at the hands of family members—the list goes on and on. But what better material for a budding novelist? Anyone can see that Alexander has done his research, and even after all the carnage and his interpretation of facts, he concludes The Magdalen Girls with an author’s note signifying his reflection and personal respect for the moral complexity in the history of organizations like the Catholic Church. What’s curious, though, is how much of that self-acknowledged complexity must have disappeared when Alexander put his fictional account to paper.
For example, the two young women at the center of the novel, Teagan and Nora, never quite separate in terms of personality or behavior enough to distinguish them. On the base level, both characters do reside in certain stereotypical spheres; Teagan reads as a beautiful, easygoing girl who finds herself betrayed under innocent circumstances, and Nora reads as a spitfire with clipped wings. But Alexander doesn’t quite elevate them beyond that initial introduction, and their personalities weaken even more once joined in friendship with perhaps the only consistently remarkable character in the novel—Lea, the devotee with a tendency toward mysterious, holy visions. Even Mother Superior (who is also referred to in the text, in an initially confusing way, as Sister Anne), the novel’s designated villain, exists mainly as a cartoonish caricature of a Disney bad guy, with little of Alexander’s intended complexity embodied by the character herself. The revelation of her tragic origin story and subsequent atonement fall flat in the novel’s final pages, when the hundreds of previous ones did little to promote her potential depth or subtlety. Many of these failings, however, should have been redirected by an editor with an eye for redundancy and technique. All the novel’s internal, italicized monologues expressing what the audience already knows, for example, could have been better implemented—and elicited more empathy—as more detailed, specific language in the text itself.
To be fair, even the promos for this novel don’t seem to know how to deliver the story 100 percent. Several other reviews state that fans of the 2014 film Philomena, the story of an elderly woman seeking out the son she bore and had taken away from her as a teenager in a Magdalen laundry, would find a favorite in The Magdalen Girls. The two stories share the same setting much of the time, sure, but the comparisons end there. Philomena, after all, stars two venerable actors at the hands of a screenplay that capitalizes on their own intuition as emotional human beings, with characters growing deeper and more complex with each passing scene. No inner monologues, here. But Dench and Coogan tell us everything we need to know, and in a way that leaves room for the audience’s own involvement. Then again, Coogan and Dench have long held clout as some of the best thespians (and in Coogan’s case, best film writers) working today. The Magdalen Girls is only Alexander’s first novel.
In the end, The Magdalen Girls, as a manuscript, may not have been totally ready for the printing press. But that only means that a student of creative writing will find much to learn here, as might a student of history. And if it’s the students that Alexander is after, then he won’t find a better audience anywhere else.
I received this book from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.