The Temple House is a girl’s school, run for the privileged and (mostly) staffed by nuns who live there. Many of the girls are socially linked and their (wealthy and influential) parents sit on the management board. It was recognised even at the time of the “disappearance” that the school could have been seen as old fashioned – even for rural and Catholic Ireland. But changes (experimental) are being implemented and they are deemed to lie at the bottom of the problem that will ultimately see the school brought into disrepute and then closed down. The seemingly simple changes – the appointment of a male art teacher, Mr Lavelle and then the planned introduction of highly academic “scholarship pupils” – result in the “vanishing” of both Mr Lavelle and the first scholarship girl, Louisa.
On the 25th anniversary of the vanishing – when neither of the two missing have ever been reported seen again – amidst renewed media interest a female journalist, incidentally a younger neighbour of the missing Louisa, will research the events. She will try and persuade Victoria, believed to be Louisa’s closest friend at the school, to tell what she knew of the events that led up to the day of the disappearance. Victoria will be pushed to suicide. This is a novel, so the depth and detail of the background will be supplied in memory recall by the missing Louisa whose chapters interleave those of the unnamed journalist.
Louisa wins the scholarship to part-board at Temple House at the age of 16. The school is a completely alien environment to her, with esoteric rules she does not understand and with largely disinterested or hostile residents. Her parent’s marriage is falling apart and over the course of her last months her mother will leave the family home. Louisa is left coping with this, exacerbating not just the vulnerabilities of her situation, but dealing with life as a developing teenager. When she starts to attend the relaxed art classes she meets Victoria who will be become her closest friend. But the politics of young female response to a young and attractive male teacher will lead to tensions and then public claims that he was involved in “inappropriate behaviour” that will lead to his dismissal. As this issue comes to a climax, Louisa will “vanish”. The school will be remarkably lax in reporting this. But even when the police become involved she cannot be traced amidst claims of lies, prevarications and back covering. Did she run away with Mr Lavelle? Was he involved in inappropriate behaviours with minors? Where is she? Who is responsible?
Without giving away the plot it is hard to discuss this in fuller detail. But the depictions of an old-fashioned school with esoteric rules and privilege supposedly looking after its own and willing to “cover up” irregularities is pinpoint accurate. Donohue gives not just a good understanding of the building within its landscape, but the feel of an old fashioned school that might well evoke personal memories. But the underlying foundations are the emotions of teenage girls in close proximity, particularly when in competition for status, friendship and the attention of the sole male teacher. As young Louisa is trying to understand her place in this circle, she has to determine whether her beliefs about and understandings of the new people around her are correct. The novel shows the pressures of the need to find a close and understanding friend that one can rely on – coupled with the stresses and urgencies of being a teenager.
This is an extremely fine novel. Donohue handles the action, the places, the people and the emotions so well. It is both absolutely believable and compelling, pulling the reader along at pace. The journalist search allows the story to develop stage by stage as her evidence grows. This allows the reader to move through what apparently happened, but to constantly re-evaluate this as more information is revealed. New truths are allowed to emerge, but old animosities and pressures to hide the truth still linger. However, the impact of an unexplained disappearance of a child on the people around her is never allowed to be forgotten. Well worth reading.
Hilary White 5/5
The Temple House Vanishing by Rachel Donohue
Corvus 9781786499387 hbk Feb 2020