Book Review: The Magdalen Girls by V.S. Alexander

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The Sisters of the Holy Redemption. A sweet-sounding place that hides a troubling secret: it is one of the many Magdalen laundries of the Catholic Church, places of abuse, neglect and sadness, all in the name of reforming their charges. Teagan is a typical 1960s Dublin girl: she thinks about clothes, her future and, of course, boys. But a mistakenly innocent encounter with a priest gets her sentenced to the laundry. There she meets an orphaned girl, Lea, who rarely speaks, has a unique gift, and seems resigned to life within the convent. Not long after Teagan’s arrival comes Nora, a feisty dreamer who hails from the tenements and only wants to run away with her boyfriend and live a life away from Dublin.

In the laundry, the girls become close friends. They pledge to look out for one another and escape together. Alexander’s research of the treatment within the convent is clear and true; the girls suffer, and suffer in silence. Their personal narratives are told through wonderful prose, although I would like to have had one main protagonist. Their life inside the convent is as honest to reality as one can get without living it personally. Their individual escapes highlight Catholic Dublin’s attitudes toward these girls, and Nora’s escape is especially troubling, though a little glossed over. What hinders this book from truly shining are the subplots of Lea, a clairvoyant martyr, and the cruel Mother Superior Sister Anne, a masochist with a secret connection with one of the Magdalens.

A well-written look at a wretched history within the Catholic Church.

*****

Review first appeared: Historical Novels Review, Feb. 2017

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