Beginning startlingly with a chaotic flashforward followed by a typed job termination letter, Phoebe Wynne sets up Madam as an intense mystery. Soon we establish the premise – Rose, a young English Classics teacher, is headhunted for a teaching role at the prestigious Caldonbrae Hall: a private girls’ school on the Scottish coast. She is immediately intimidated by the dark grandeur of the building and stiff protocols but is determined to settle into her new life here and educate the young women in Latin and Greek mythology. Of course, this proves more difficult than she’d anticipated and the school’s sinister secrets begin to surface.
Wynne successfully engages the reader early on with vivid descriptions of Caldonbrae and the inhospitable Scottish seascape. An atmosphere of murky deception emerges and it becomes evident that Rose isn’t being told the truth about her predecessor, the school’s history, or the erratic behaviour of a troubled student, Bethany. She hears rumours of a former pupil who died, secret tunnels, and odd ‘finishing’ lessons consigned to remote wings of the school building. The mysterious plot elements seem, at first, to build cleverly, driving the reader towards further reveals and dangerous happenings. However, the suspense loses its tension over time. There seem to be endless classroom scenes of lessons gone wrong (Rose’s inaction and unwillingness to discipline her insufferable pupils is incredibly frustrating) and there is a hefty roll call of teenage characters who are difficult to differentiate. Moreover, the reader will likely figure out the novel’s key twist long before Rose does. The delay feels unnecessary, and even after Rose figures out Caldonbrae’s true purpose, she is again passive, stymied by her colleagues without much of a fight.
In the novel’s overdue third act, even more disturbing scenes arise creating further conflict. However, Rose still fails to take action. Her responses are internal and muted. She even borders on being complicit in the school’s immoral practices.
Many key elements of Madam do make for an enjoyable read: powerful depiction of a modern-gothic setting; creation of a haunting atmosphere; development of the central mystery; and the interesting motifs of female mythological characters. It feels frustrating, then, for the protagonist not to live up to the heroism of her favourite classical archetypes. Come the Epilogue, the reader may feel a little cheated, remembering the promise of the novel’s dynamic opening.