REVIEW: ‘Madam’ by Phoebe Wynne

I remember being a kid and racing through hefty paperbacks after school and at the weekends. I used to read books in a single sitting, if my parents let me continue reading at the dinner table. I haven’t done that kind of reading in a long time. This week, though, I found myself with a bit of unexpected free time on a dreary day, and sat down with ‘Madam’ by Phoebe Wynne.

I had a suitably gothic storm going on outside while reading this book.

An updated gothic novel, it’s about a classics teacher, Rose, who arrives at a new school – but as with all these things, something isn’t quite right about the school, its staff and students… I ripped through this book – the secretive behaviour of the other teachers coupled with the knowing boredom of the students made me share the protagonist’s frustration at the mysterious institution she has joined. If the gothic is about balancing between pleasure and terror, the this book definitely did it for me – I vividly imagined the twisting architecture of the school and it’s twisted inhabitants.

I would have loved it to have been longer, to dwell on the details of the scenery and weather (much like it’s older gothic predecessors), but I know that kind of digression is not for everyone. There were some major departures from the gothic tropes too – most notably Rose, the protagonist, who is decidedly much less of the swooning, sickly variety of heroine. (Good.) 

I wasn’t sure what to make of the interleaving of classical stories with the main narrative – as someone who doesn’t know much about Greek and Roman mythology (much like Rose’s students in the book!), it was useful to have them there and spot their resonances in the narrative to follow. I’m not sure if I am convinced by some of the arguments made by the retellings, but then these sorts of discussions form a key part of the book. 

Overall it was a great read – I read it in a day, it was that gripping! As the book progresses the mystery unfolds in a really satisfying – and also horrifying – way. It’s not gory or anything – as Wynne makes clear, there are scarier things out there! For me, the real fear is in feeling that it’s a little bit too plausible, even in its gothic silliness… It was the perfect read for the cold and wet weather in Tier 2 lockdown.

‘Madam’ by Phoebe Wynne is out in February 2021, published by Quercus Books. I received this ARC while attending the virtual Quercus 2021 Word of Mouth Bestsellers Evening on Zoom.

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