Bad Girl Magdalene by Jonathan Gash

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Bad Girl Magdalene by Jonathan Gash

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Category: Crime
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Iain Wear
Reviewed by Iain Wear
Summary: An interesting story with a slightly disturbing premise, which is as well written as it is unsettling and makes for compelling reading.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 384 Date: November 2008
Publisher: Allison & Busby
ISBN: 978-0749079321

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In recent years, there has been a lot in the news about the abuse suffered by children in the care of the church, particularly the Catholic Church. After years of such abuse, many parts of the church have since offered apologies and reparation. Something like this isn't necessarily the kind of thing you would expect to see as the basis for a novel, but that is the background against which Jonathan Gash's Bad Girl Magdalene is set.

Magda Finnan is a child of The Magdalenes, an orphanage run by nuns. Having reached the age at which she can leave, she has a job as a domestic at the St Cosmo Old People's Home, also run by a group of nuns and a place of her own to live. Unfortunately, Magda is still haunted by dreams of an evening back at the Magdalenes, when her best friend Lucy was abused by a priest and ended the night by ending her life; an event which was covered up by the nuns.

One day, Magda sees Father Doran, the priest whom she still holds responsible for Lucy's demise. She vows that she will kill him, thinking that this may be the only way to ensure Lucy is at rest and no longer haunting Magda's dreams night after night. The problem Madga has is that she can't read or write and so has only the vaguest of ideas of how to go about something like this. She just knows that it needs to be done, but isn't entirely sure how to get it done.

We follow Magda through a few days of her life, getting to see how her strict Catholic upbringing and the things she's seen in the orphanage have affected her and how she lives her life now. We see how people take advantage of her, both at work and in her personal life and how the religious views she's had imprinted on her have coloured her life. We also get to see how she works around being illiterate and innumerate to such an extent that no-one realises straight away that she can't read or count.

What struck me most about the story, even more so than the slightly disturbing background, is what a wonderful character Magda Finnan is. She's spent most of her life being ordered around and berated and punished for any number of things and she's uneducated, which gives her a major inferiority complex. She's a shy, retiring little thing, but she's battled through everything life has thrown at her and she's survived, possibly against the odds. This makes her more of a heroine than many other characters I've come across.

The way the book is written helps with this, as it's told from Magda's point of view in the very simple language she herself would use. When she's under pressure, there are moments where it sometimes becomes a little disjointed, with the writing almost heading towards the stream of consciousness style, but retaining more composure than that style would allow. There were parts where Magda reminded me of Christopher Boone from Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, although without the same level of fascination that novel provided.

Despite the delight that was Magda, this was still a slightly difficult novel to get into. The whole background is slightly unpleasant, even more so when you suddenly spot a mention of a mobile phone or something recent and realise that this is not a novel set a long time ago, but on events that have possibly occurred recently or may still be going on.

This does take a little away from the simple joy that is Magda's life, for the reader at least, if not for her. This, combined with her almost childlike ways, made what she was trying to do seem a little more distasteful. Whilst the language is quite simple, the novel isn't always an easy read because of this, although it does become rather compelling, as you can't help but feel sympathy for Magda's cause, as wrong as her aims may seem to the rest of us.

If you can put the slightly disturbing concept to the back of your mind as you read, this is a thoroughly rewarding novel, in which the context plays an important part. It's a novel that pulls your emotions in different directions, such that I found I enjoyed it, but felt slightly guilty for having done so. It's not the kind of thing I could read over and over, but it's certainly different enough and well written enough to be worthy of one look.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

For a book with a similar theme we can recommend Christine Falls by Benjamin Black.

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