The Magdalen Girls, by V. S. Alexander. Kensington. 304 pages. Trade paperback $15.00.
Set near Dublin in the 1960s, this unusual novel carefully constructs a powerful vision of religiosity run amok. Its focus is two teenage girls who are assigned to the Magdalen Laundries at The Sisters of the Holy Redemption Convent. Their parents have assigned their care to the convent, believing that its discipline and Spartan living conditions will bring the young women to faith, responsibility, and eventually to productive, upright lives. That’s the positive spin on the parents’ motives, which readers will find far less noble.
In fact, the institution is a prison and slave labor operation, all in the name of Jesus and his Father.
Both Nora Craven and Teagan Tiernan are in their mid-teens. Their home lives are disastrous: their parents strongly judgmental and unloving, their fathers done in by drinking. Both seek to escape, but as children have no standing. Their relationships to the Catholic church are unfulfilling, but it is the Catholic church, or its institutions, that will dominate their lives.
Both end up in the Magdalen Laundry at the convent, both spend time in confinement there. Both, over the course of a year, are offered poor food, strenuous labor, and only the hope that conformity to a harsh, identity-crushing routine – or escape – will bring them a viable future. The fact that they have been turned over to the authority of Sister Anne, the Mother Superior, predicts a gloomy fate, as this woman is on the edge of a psychotic breakdown.
In essence, these youngsters are abandoned by their parents. As Magdalens, they are objects of community scorn. Teagan, moreover, is betrayed by the leaders of her neighborhood church – accused and convicted of immoral behavior without any legal proceedings or any opportunity to defend herself. Priestly misconduct goes on unchallenged.
In the view of Sister Anne, the girls’ sinful natures must be beaten out of them. This woman is addicted to slicing her arms with a sharp blade. Her action is at once an act of faith, a punishment, and a deeply buried recognition that her abuses of power are worse than anything the Magdalen girls do.
It’s the Middle Ages brought to the later 20th century. . . .
To read the entire review, as it appears in the January 11, 2017 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the January 12 Naples, Bonita Springs, Punta Gorda / Port Charlotte, and Palm Beach editions, click here: Florida Weekly – The Magdalen Girls