“Four-square, severe, stark-white. Tiny windows covered with iron bars; iron bars across the entrance. It must be terribly old. It isn’t like a school“Four-square, severe, stark-white. Tiny windows covered with iron bars; iron bars across the entrance. It must be terribly old. It isn’t like a school at all. More like a fortress.”
You are a fourteen-year old, motherless girl, and you adore your father deeply. A war is going on, but you don’t really feel the consequences of it (yet). Your beloved French governess has been sent back to her homeland. Suddenly, your father tells you that you are being uprooted from the only home you’ve ever known and being sent to a girls’ boarding school far away. Not just any girls’ school, either – a “fortress.” What is a young adolescent to do? Rebel, naturally! Although to give her credit, Gina Vitay’s brand of rebellion isn’t necessarily of the kicking and screaming variety, but rather a more controlled, clever, and stoic sort of defiance. After all, her father is a general in the Hungarian army and Gina has inherited a backbone much like this stalwart and composed officer.
“She needed no instruction on what to feel, and she would certainly never expose what was private between them to the eyes of people they did not know.”
Gina is left in the confines of the Bishop Matula Academy for girls while World War II seethes across the globe. She is reduced to a replica of all the other girls housed there. They all dress and wear their hair the same; no precious belongings from the outside are allowed as comforts to be hoarded and cherished. An independent-minded, spirited girl like Gina becomes instantly hostile. The other girls have their own coping mechanisms - ways to keep themselves amused and games to fool their teachers and superiors. They invite Gina into their fold, but Gina makes a wrong step and is quickly ostracized. Anyone that has ever been a teenage girl or has had dealings with one will know how ugly this can get!
“They have swallowed me whole. I am no longer myself, she thought, and her breathing became a rapid pant.”
There is a mystery behind this story and a rather compelling one at that. There is the secret of why the General has left Gina in the clutches of these seemingly cold, uncaring adults. There are whispers of the dissident of Árkod, whose handiwork the girls observe furtively, much to the dismay of their teachers. Then there is Abigail. Abigail is a statue on the grounds of the institute. She is said to come to the aid of those in trouble, and the other girls firmly believe in her. Gina, however, looks on this statue with scorn. Until one day she receives a note of her own from this guardian angel of sorts. It is rumored that a person must certainly be behind these secret messages, but who could it be? And how does he or she fit into the other puzzles of the academy and the town itself?
“Who are you, Abigail, you whose true face no one has ever seen, whom we know only by the actions that you’ve been carrying out inside these walls for thirty years?”
There is much to admire in this novel that has been translated into English after being published in Hungary fifty years ago. Magda Szabó is an author that writes a solid and very engaging plot. She moves the story along with a good deal of suspense, but also a variety of interesting characters. These characters are not necessarily readily developed, but that is not the point of this book. Each is distinctly drawn, yet it is the plot itself that wins the day. There are lessons to be learned - in particular, appearances can be deceiving (as we all know)! But when a group of girls view people on the surface only (as young girls are wont to do), they can truly get themselves and others into some hot water! Matchmaking and general disdain rule the day when it comes to interactions with their teachers.
This isn’t my first time reading one of Szabó’s books in translation, nor will it be my last. I could easily recommend this to anyone that enjoys a boarding school story and a mystery. I have to admit, I did unscramble part of the riddle fairly early on. That’s not really the object here though – at heart, it’s an entertaining story full of atmosphere and accomplished writing.
“When, as an adult, she thought back to the hymns and psalms of her youth, she never remembered them in isolation; particular sounds and scents drifted around them, and with them too the smell of the home-made soap that filled the corridors of the Matula, the soundless opening and closing of doors, the timid, hesitant movement of her fingers on the piano keyboard, and even her face as it had looked at the time.”...more