Maybe it’s just coincidence or maybe it’s a trend but this is the third novel set in a boarding school I’ve read in as many months: both Scarlett Thomas’ Oligarchy and Magda Szabó’s Abigail share the backdrop of a girls’ school although the latter was originally published over fifty years ago. Rachel Donohue’s debut explores themes of love, betrayal and jealousy in the eponymous Temple House, once a grand mansion now a Catholic school for girls.
Twenty-five years after the disappearance of a sixteen-year-old scholarship girl and her art teacher, a young journalist has decided to write a series of articles about the case, more in an attempt to understand its circumstances than to solve it. Accustomed to being the star pupil at her state school, Louisa was a weekly boarder at Temple House, cloaking herself in defensive irony in this bastion of entitlement. First seen lounging with Mr Lavelle in the summer house where he teaches art to the select few, Victoria singles out Louisa and the two become inseparable, much to the head girl’s undisguised disquiet. Mr Lavelle likes to think he’s opening the girls’ minds, a counterpoint to the nuns and their hellfire preaching, carefully cultivating his charisma as he does so. As the autumn term wears on, Louisa wishes the weekends away, longing to be with Victoria again unheeding of the warnings from her roommate about Victoria’s predilection for starring in her own drama. Louisa continues to shine academically but it’s the art classes she most eagerly anticipates, noting a special relationship between Victoria and Mr Lavelle. Towards the end of term, a letter appears along with a poem which will result in the disappearance of Louisa and Mr Lavelle, an unsolved mystery which has fascinated our journalist since her childhood, living opposite Louisa’s parents.
Donohue narrates The Temple House Vanishing through the voices of Louisa and the unnamed journalist. It took me a little while to become absorbed in it but once hooked the mystery of what happened to Louisa and Mr Lavelle nagged at me. Louisa is a convincing character, confident in her intellectual ability yet uncomfortable in this claustrophobic, hothouse atmosphere where entitlement runs deep – wide open to the manipulative Victoria for whom she conceives a passion. Obviously, this will be a spoiler-free zone but suffice to say that none of my resolutions – one of them admittedly a little outlandish – proved to be the right one. I spotted a Twitter post a little while back which voiced annoyance at being alerted to twists but I think you’d be disappointed if this kind of novel failed to provide one. A little out of my usual literary territory, but an enjoyable read that keeps you guessing before delivering its denouement and that twist.
Corvus: London 2020 9781786499387 336 pages Hardback