Abigail by Magda Szabó (transl. Len Rix): Coming of age in 1940s Hungary

Cover imageI’ve yet to read Magda Szabó’s The Door despite having enjoyed both Katalin Street and Iza’s Ballad. Abigail is very different from either of those, not least in its length, but it comes billed as the most popular of her novels in her native Hungary. Set in a girls’ boarding school, it’s about Gina whose officer father sends her away to the other side of the country in 1943 on the eve of the German occupation.

Fifteen-year-old Gina has a head full of glamour and romance, spending much of her time with her frivolous aunt, cultivating her crush on a lieutenant. Inexplicably, her beloved father has decided to send her to a strict Protestant boarding school, squatting on the edges of a town that resents it. At first, Gina enjoys being feted as a novelty, thinking herself superior to these provincial girls intent on finding ways around their school’s draconian rules. When she carelessly lets slip one of their more arcane rituals, Gina feels the full force of her schoolmates’ fury. Desperate to escape, she devises a plan which ends in failure. Perhaps she should leave a note in Abigail’s pitcher, another ritual she’s sneeringly dismissed, but which has resulted in surprising results for other girls. When her father suddenly appears, she’s faced with a sobering reality. He brings news which chimes more with the dissident placards left around the town proclaiming the war a disaster than the school’s resolute patriotism, telling her that the secrecy of her whereabouts is paramount to her safety. Gina realises she must make the best of things, finding her way back into the affections of her schoolmates and devising entertainments that frequently land her in trouble. Life outside the walls of school becomes more dangerous as the Germans set their sights on occupying Hungary. Things come to a head when Gina’s cover is blown but Abigail comes to the rescue.

According to its press release, Abigail is the most celebrated of Szabó’s novels in her homeland – it’s even been adapted into a rock opera, still performed in Budapest, apparently, which is slightly mind-boggling. It’s told from Gina’s perspective, many years after the tumultuous six months in which she learnt that appearances can be deceptive. Szabó summons up the claustrophobia of boarding school life vividly – the spitefulness of adolescent young girls, bored and forced into piety, or the semblance of it, is painfully believable. Their tiny, tightly controlled world is in stark contrast to the bloody drama unfolding in their country, most evocatively demonstrated as the girls watch a train full of soldiers, bound for the front. Szabó tells her story well, pulling its thread of tension taut as Gina’s danger becomes apparent and neatly tying up loose ends in its final chapter. Not my favourite of her novels, but certainly well worth reading.

Maclehose Press: London 2020 9780857058485 448 pages Paperback

20 thoughts on “Abigail by Magda Szabó (transl. Len Rix): Coming of age in 1940s Hungary

  1. heavenali

    Glad you felt it was worth reading. I loved the other 3 Szabo novels in English not sure which would be my favourite. I think this might be my next read.

    Reply
  2. JacquiWine

    I’ve yet to catch the Szabo bug, but it’s probably only a matter of time! I do like the sound the sound of this one, especially the sense of claustrophobia and tension you describe. Definitely one to consider in the future…

    Reply
  3. buriedinprint

    What is it about boarding school stories? I’ve been collecting a little list of contenders for a mini-project and even though I know I would have been a terrible boarding school student (even had that ever been an option for me) I remain fascinated. I can’t recall, have you read Mona Awad’s Bunny? More college campus (and not even accurately that) than boarding school, but it was on my mini-project list too (haven’t read any of the others): delightfully writerish and strange. I have a feeling Szabo is an author I will enjoy immensely.

    Reply
    1. Susan Osborne Post author

      There does seem to be a little trend in novels set in boarding schools at the moment – Oligarchy, Abigail and The Temple House Vanishing which I’ll be reviewing later in the month spring to mind. I’ve not read Bunny but I’m sure I saw it mentioned recently (perhaps in passing on your blog?). My partner went to boarding school and I know from listening to him that I’d have detested it.

      Reply

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