cover image The Magdalen Girls

The Magdalen Girls

V.S. Alexander. Kensington, $15 trade paper (304p) ISBN 978-1-4967-0612-6

Set in early 1960s Dublin, Alexander’s first novel chronicles the lives of three teenagers who are sent to live indefinitely as penitents under the watch of occasionally sadistic Catholic nuns. After a minor flirtation with a priest, 16-year-old Tegan finds herself sentenced to a life mostly in silence with meager food and an enormous workload as a laundress. She’s joined shortly by loud, hotheaded Nora, who takes a shine to her. The girls make a pact to look out for each other. They form a trio with vulnerable, quiet former farm girl Lea, who appears to have inherited a gift for clairvoyance from her mother. Both Tegan and Nora make ill-fated attempts to escape, while Lea has largely resigned herself to her fate. The convent’s brutal Mother Superior, Sister Anne, cuts herself occasionally and harbors a dark secret. Sister Anne devises barbaric punishments for her wards under the guise of caring for their spiritual salvation: among other things, penitents are made to hold their hands over the flame of a candle to experience hellfire. The Magdalen laundries where Tegan works were infamous for their severe conditions and the inhuman way their girls were treated, but Alexander explains away Sister Anne’s hardness with a backstory that ends up undercutting the ubiquitous cruelty of these institutions. [em](Jan.) [/em]