At about 40% into the kindle version of this book it started to become very uncomfortable reading. I’d no idea where it was going to go and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be along for the ride. I was glad I stayed with it, because of the truth it shows about the effects of trauma. They are life long. Now I’m finding it very difficult to review in my usual way. It felt like reading a client’s journal work, the sort I might ask them to write as part of their counselling journey. There was something prurient about reading Ruby’s account, because it was so intimate and harrowing who could gain pleasure from reading it? Perhaps this is exactly the effect that Phoebe Wynne was hoping to evoke in the reader? Not all reading is pleasurable, sometimes it has a different purpose. To educate, to shock, to show people they are not alone in their experience. In the author’s first novel Madame we were introduced to some of the same themes: the super rich who are above the law and practice exploitation like a religion; young teenage girls being groomed to become Stepford wives to the millionaire class; a creepy gothic school where the girls are educated; the complicity of women in this continuous cycle. Yet with that book the creepy undertones suggested a supernatural element and the malice of some of the pupils was just enough for dislike to creep in. Both help us look past the true horror of what is going on. Once I’d finished the book I felt like I’d glimpsed behind life’s curtain to see the decadent and corrupt inner workings of society. This book felt different. The girls were younger, the setting perhaps more realistic, so the flashbacks to what should have been a blissful summer for three girls at a French château, felt claustrophobic, exploitative and very dark indeed.
Ruby and her family are spending the summer at their Château in France, as usual they are joined by her father’s two best friends; Harley and Angus, with his daughter Imogen. However, added to their party this year are the Fullers and their daughter Annie, plus a woman called Georgina and her teenage daughter Ned (Edwina). Their normal equilibrium is disturbed immediately when one of the Fullers drives back to the château after a few drinks and hits a child in the village. With their combined power and influence, the men ‘handle’ the problem, but Mrs Fuller is not so easily silenced. Was she driving or is she reacting to her husband’s callous disregard for life? Whatever the reason she returns to the château screaming and crying. She has to be sedated and removed back to England as soon as possible. From there the holiday descends into decadence – heavy drinking becomes the norm, little jibes and full blown arguments ensue.
Make no mistake these men are in charge and however they choose to behave, no one will rebuke them. The author creates a sense of powerlessness in the women of the party, from the hysterical Mrs Fuller to the passivity of Ruby’s mum. Within this patriarchy, women are policing the borders. Whether it’s because they believe in the system or because they are keeping quiet to stay safe, every woman here is reacting to male dominance. Ruby’s mum is a walking list of instructions – keep up your flute practice, stay quiet at the table, don’t ask questions and above all don’t read books. Ruby’s love of Agatha Christie is frowned upon by the men and that disapproval is acted on by her mother who eventually stops her. At first her reading is tolerated and admired by Angus. Harley cruelly ruins the end of Murder on the Orient Express, making the point that reading fiction is not the best use of Ruby’s time. Then a seemingly kind birthday present of Death on the Nile becomes tainted – it’s intentions called into question by later events. Events that suggest someone might have been using her love of reading as a way to groom this young girl. Then eventually, the book becomes part of a terrible traumatic memory. I don’t have any personal experience of what Ruby and Imogen go through that summer, but it’s still shocking to read. It was the neglect that bothered me most, the fact that none of these mothers, except perhaps Ned’s mother Georgina, are on their daughter’s side. Not only do they seem curiously detached from how their husbands behave – until it’s in front of other people – they don’t intervene with their daughters, spend time with them or speak up when they are treated badly. Their silence makes them complicit. As a reader I felt powerless to stop what was happening.
In between the flashes of that summer we follow another trip to France, many years later, with Mrs Cosgrove. She’s come to visit the château that’s for sale along with the coast, the venue of childhood memories and events that still haunt her today. Some locals seem to recognise her but she denies being here before, claiming to be taking a holiday. Yet Mrs Cosgrove is jumpy, looking out for particular cars and appearing frightened when two men appear also claiming a link to the château. Does this place and it’s memories still have power over her? Or is she hoping to finally breathe, so that what happened here is no longer such an influence on her life? She might not be the only one who has ghosts to lay here. I found the mood of these sections very different from the tension and seedy atmosphere of the past. Mrs Cosgrove is tense, but curiously I wasn’t even though her story takes us back into the truth of that summer. Maybe because I knew the worst had already happened. Maybe because the after effects of trauma are something I’m more used to, where I have some power to help. Considering the scandals that haunt the headlines these days, whether it’s Harvey Weinstein, Jimmy Saville, Jeffrey Epstein and Ghislaine Maxwell, no one can be surprised by a constructed reality in which the rich and entitled behave as if anything they want they can take. Perhaps my reluctance to read about it says a lot about why these abusers were free to commit crimes against those less powerful for so long – no one wants to face the reality that people can and do act this way. The men in this novel are grotesque, we want to think of them as monsters in order to distance them from ourselves, but sadly they are not. The author wants us to see and not look away, otherwise we are complicit too. In the blurb, Phoebe Wynne says that very little is made up and with my twenty years experience of working in mental health I sadly confirm that childhood abuse is more common than most realise. Perhaps my struggle with reading it is because I’ve seen what abuse does to people and witnessing the effects of trauma is hard to forget. The author also says she wrote the book so that it might ‘provide some consolation for the darkest moments of female experience’ and I truly hope it does that.
Meet the Author
Phoebe Wynne worked in education for eight years, teaching Classics in the UK and English Language and Literature in Paris. She left the classroom to focus on her writing, and went on to hone her craft in Los Angeles and in London. She is both British and French, and currently spends her time between France and England.‘Madam’ is her debut novel, and ‘The Ruins’ is her second.