Historical Fiction · Review

The Magdalen Girls by V.S. Alexander

the-magdalen-girls-by-vs-alexanderPublisher: Kensington Books

Pub. Date: 2017

Genre: Historical Fiction

Pages: 292

Rating: 5 out of 5 Stars

In 1962, The Sisters of the Holy Redemption holds one of the Magdalen Laundries, the workhouses of “fallen” women (unwed mothers, prostitutes, etc.), in Dublin. Most of the girls sinned by being too pretty, being too independent, or tempting a man. Teagan Tiernan and Nora Craven are sent to the convent for “tempting” a priest and for kissing a boy. They are renamed, given uniforms, have their hair cropped, denied contact with the outside world, and set to work in the laundry. They befriend each other and the nuns’ favorite Magdalen, Lea, and they plot escape. The Mother Superior takes pleasure in punishing her charges—in the name of love. The girls will discover that the outside world can be just as cruel as the Mother Superior. The Magdalen Girls, by V.S. Alexander, recounts a horrifying piece of history with themes of friendship and courage.

I have seen The Magdalene Sisters (2002) many times, so I was interested in reading a novel set in the same era. The first Magdalen laundries were opened in the 18th Century, and the last closed in 1996. My knowledge of the Magdalen laundries is restricted to that movie, this book, and a few articles that state the Catholic Church has not apologized to this day. The Magdalen Girls was also the first book published in 2017 that I bought.

The four primary characters of the book have limited third-person narrators. Nora is obstinate and has an admirable fighting spirit. Lea is strange for her contentedness with living in the convent; she even feels that the nuns are trying to help them. She is a wildcard I did not expect because I expected all the Magdalens to hate their situation and possibly have resigned themselves to it. Sister Anne, the Mother Superior, truly believes she is doing God’s work if in a sadistic and masochistic way. In some ways, I like seeing a villain try to be the heroine of her story, but I loathed the way she justified her actions because I find it so reprehensible. In any case, all of the characters dramatically change by the end of the book.

I did not care for the ending because it only seemed to resolve the problems of two characters. Then again, does a book have to resolve every part of the plot and every character’s life? Probably not.

The blurb on the cover (“Who will save them?”) asks about one theme: someone has to save these girls. It begs further questions: Are the girls going to have to save themselves? How will they escape the convent? In what ways will people be saved in this book?

This is a beautiful paperback. The combination of cover and title caught my attention. The font is perfect. The spine and back cover are a dark green, which set off the front cover. I am not sure that the photograph actually represents the content of the novel, but it demonstrates the genre and setting.

I recommend V.S. Alexander’s The Magdalen Girls to historical fiction fans and those who are interested in Irish history.


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