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Hauntings and Criminal Behaviours in A Boarding School for Girls

"The Broken Girls" by Simone St. James

Myra here.

This book was selected by one of my online reading communities on Litsy, the #BOTMBuddyRead.

Since the title fits our current reading theme, I thought of joining them during last month’s discussion.

The Broken Girls

Written bySimone St. James
Published byBerkley Books (2018) ISBN: 0451476204 (ISBN13: 9780451476203).
Borrowed from the Jurong West Public Library. Book quotes were designed using Typorama.

The book alternates across two timelines: (1) Vermont in 2014 where the reader is introduced to an obscure and struggling journalist, Fiona Sheridan, living under the shadow of her great father, a mostly-retired but still highly respected and renowned photojournalist. Fiona’s sister was murdered twenty years ago in the ruins of Idlewild Hall, and this is the crux of the narrative, since Fiona seemed to have been defined by this experience and was unable to move on from it. What struck me though as a bit odd, is that the perpetrator is already behind bars. Hence, her seeming obsession with her sister’s case that brings her repeatedly to Idlewild Hall, did not really make sense to me.

Then there is the second timeline: (2) Vermont in 1950, where the reader is taken inside Idlewild Hall, a boardinghouse for “broken girls” – the rejects, the supposedly-mentally-unsound, the illegitimate children of wealthy businessmen, the misfits. There were four ‘broken girls’ who found a sanctuary with each other, an unlikely friendship that blossomed amidst feelings of abandonment and alienation: one of them was murdered.

Naturally, the boardinghouse is haunted. It is this which really made me sit up and pay attention, because the description of the woman in a black veil, named Mary Hand, was so creepy, it actually gave me nightmares. Mary Hand seems to have the power to see through any person that she is able to show your deepest fears or that which matters most to you, and transforming it in the scariest way imaginable.

While I was riveted by the 1950 storyline, the present time left a bit to be desired, mainly because there was something grating in the character of Fiona that made it hard for me as a reader to sympathize. I am relieved that the chapters are very short, allowing me to jump right into the next bit of the narrative.

What did not work for me was the ending and how the entire thing was neatly resolved. I felt that the book was attempting to do too many things all at once: a Holocaust survivor thrown here, an ex-Nazi thrown there, a wealthy and self-entitled young man with a violent temper – and amidst it all, the haunting by Mary Hand. There seems to be an attempt to ground the story somewhat in “real” rather than “otherworldly” events that I felt it lacked a measure of cohesiveness and credibility. I just felt that if a haunting is what the story was supposed to be, stick to it, and take it the whole nine yards, rather than find a plausible culprit in the end, that while technically possible, seemed highly improbable for me. Regardless, I found the narrative nightmare-inducing and a veritable page-turner. If you want a fairly quick read (I finished it over one weekend) while lounging around in the beach, this won’t be such a bad choice.

#LitWorld2018GB Update: USA

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Myra is a Teacher Educator and a registered clinical psychologist based in Al Ain, United Arab Emirates. Prior to moving to the Middle East, she lived for eleven years in Singapore serving as a teacher educator. She has edited five books on rediscovering children’s literature in Asia (with a focus on the Philippines, Malaysia, India, China, Japan) as part of the proceedings for the Asian Festival of Children’s Content where she served as the Chair of the Programme Committee for the Asian Children’s Writers and Illustrators Conference from 2011 until 2019. While she is an academic by day, she is a closet poet and a book hunter at heart. When she is not reading or writing about books or planning her next reads, she is hoping desperately to smash that shuttlecock to smithereens because Badminton Is Life (still looking for badminton courts here at UAE - suggestions are most welcome).

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