This story is told through the alternating voices of Louisa, in the early 1990s, and The Journalist in 2015, gradually revealing the background to the events which led to the mysterious disappearance of the sixteen-year-old pupil and the art teacher with whom she had fallen in love. One thing which Louisa and Mr Lavelle have in common is that each represents a “first” in the prestigious, snobbish Temple House school; she is one of the first scholarship girls and he is the first male teacher in the school’s history. Louisa, whose home background is disturbed and considerably less affluent than that of the other girls, finds it hard to fit into the cloistered environment of narrow-minded nuns, petty rules and arcane rituals with which she is confronted. Her lack of social confidence is exacerbated when she is reminded by the arrogant head-girl that being the recipient of a scholarship merely represents being part of a “social experiment”, and in no way confers any promise of acceptance by her peers. However, she finds herself drawn to Victoria who, although part of the elite-background norm, seems to hold herself apart from her peer-group and appears sensitive to Louisa’s feelings of bemusement and isolation. An unlikely friendship develops between the two girls and, through Victoria’s already established connection with Mr Lavelle, a powerful bond is formed between these three characters. It is this bond which will lay the foundations for the disappearance of two of the characters, as well as provide the focus for both the immediate scandal and the long-term reverberations caused by the unsolved mystery.
Although The Journalist tries to track down anyone who witnessed what happened all those years ago, she believes that Victoria hold the key to what happened and is intent on getting her to reveal what she knows. She is determined to uncover the facts, not only because, as a journalist, solving this twenty-five-year-old mystery will provide her with a career-enhancing scoop but, on a more personal level she wants to understand what happened to the teenage Louisa, the daughter of neighbours who lived across the road from her own family. Although she has only vague memories of her, the teenager’s disappearance had had an impact on her own childhood – as she recalls with her reflection: “Louisa: she was the reason I never got to go anywhere on my own as a child.”
Through the alternating narratives the author gradually ratchets up the tension in an impressively well-controlled way. It is this gradual building up of the complexities of the plot, and the slowly emerging insights into her characters’ personalities and motivations, which made this such a compelling read for me. Each time I began to feel confident that I knew the direction the story was taking, she would introduce unexpected, yet entirely credible, twists which would force me to re-think my assumptions! Her skill at doing this certainly did much to contribute to the psychological authenticity of the story, something which was reinforced by the brilliant epilogue, which captured the essential sadness and tragedy of all that had happened to the characters.
I was impressed with the convincing ways in which she captured the intense passions and obsessions of adolescent girls, their rivalries and jealousies, the bullying and the cliques which form, perhaps particularly intensely in the hot-house environment of an all-girls’ boarding school. Running through the story were illustrations of the uncontrollable nature of passions which are not fully understood, as well as the delusions and self-destructive behaviour which can accompany relationships based on unrequited love, envy and jealousy. Add to this mixture a young teacher who, however inadvertently, blurs the teacher/pupil boundaries and abuses his power by being seemingly careless with the passionate feelings he is generating, and it soon becomes clear that the consequences are likely to be far-reaching.
Also, through the narrative voice of The Journalist, she convincingly explored how hard it is to uncover the truth behind a cover-up when the individuals involved continue to have an emotional investment in keeping buried all the secrets and lies which enabled it in the first place. At the time of the disappearance of Louisa and Mr Lavelle, the school and board of governors “closed ranks” against two outsiders who had never quite fitted in and were, therefore, easy scapegoats. The ongoing echoes of this made it difficult for the journalist to get anyone to be honest about what had happened twenty-five years earlier. However, as the story highlights, it’s impossible for family and friends to achieve emotional closure when someone, especially a child, disappears without trace so, her determined quest for the truth for them was convincing.
This is a hauntingly atmospheric, reflective and, at times, deeply sad and disturbing story and is one which I found almost impossible to put down. As a debut novel, it is particularly impressive so I’ll be looking forward to whatever Rachel Donohue writes next.
With thanks to Readers First and the publisher for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Linda Hepworth 5/5*
The Temple House Vanishing by Rachel Donohue
978-1-78649-938-7 Corvus Atlantic Books Hardback 6th February 2020