“It began with death, my time in Temple House.” For those of us who grew up reading Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers and St Clare’s before graduating to such chilling greats as Donna Tartt’s The Secret History and Joan Lindsay’s Picnic at Hanging Rock, the school-set mystery genre can never lose its appeal.
At first glance Rachel Donohue’s much-anticipated debut appears to be a perfect fit: an upmarket mystery set in a remote Catholic boarding school, featuring the cold case disappearance of a teenager and her teacher. So far, so central casting, so straightforward.
So…not so. For Donohue quickly tugs her story down a deeper, darker path, exploring what happens when power and jealousy go head-to-head with the complexities and extremes of teenage longing and desire.
In the 1990s, 16-year-old Louisa and handsome, charismatic art teacher Mr Lavelle vanish from Temple House school. Despite a police investigation, no trace of them is found, nor do they ever contact family.
You know, sometimes there are no reasons. Things just happen and they have no meaning, really
Twenty-five years later a journalist who grew up on the same street as Louisa, and who as a child witnessed Louisa’s father’s slow, despairing disintegration into alcoholism after his only child’s disappearance, decides to write a series of articles about the case, a contemporary investigation which is told in parallel with Louisa’s own intense story.
Central to the Journalist’s research (we never learn her name) are Louisa’s school friend Victoria, now a newly-divorced businesswoman, and Temple House’s former head prefect Helen.
The Temple House Vanishing opens on a significant character’s death; a brave move that pays off perfectly. From there Donohue slips back and forward, deftly folding and unfolding past and present. Occasionally the plot feels constrained by its role in this shape-shifting, as if echoing the Journalist’s mother when she tells her daughter: “You know, sometimes there are no reasons. Things just happen and they have no meaning, really.”
Donohue works a tight cast of characters well. The school’s nuns make their presence felt as a thunderous cloud hovering low overhead rather than as individuals.
While this is effective, the flipside is that heart-throb Lavelle, depicted as bohemian and careless about rules, begins to seem an increasingly unlikely choice as a teacher in an all-girls’ boarding school, particularly one who can access bedroom corridors at night.
Lavelle is referred to more than once as “the hollow man”. Because we encounter him only through his students’ eyes or in epigrammatic comments of his own in class, such vagueness around him is true to the story-telling but it has the effect of rendering him insubstantial, and his actions around the major incident at the heart of the novel are not entirely convincing.
They both looked like they had aged 10 years and it made me question if it was possible to build future happiness on the back of causing pain to others
Donohue won the Hennessy New Irish Writer of the Year in 2017 with a fascinating short story which too had a missing student, though almost as an aside: “We had been in school together, a Victorian pile perched on a cliff in Wicklow. It was closed in the early 1990s after becoming mired in scandal when a student went missing. Gardaí and journalists on the steps. We tended not to reference it in polite company.”
The Temple House Vanishing proves what The Taking of Mrs Kennedy suggested: that Donohue is a master of clean, sharp prose, and has a hugely impressive ability to create layers of atmosphere or ratchet up tension in a couple of beguilingly simple sentences.
By the end of the novel Louisa is so real that it’s impossible not to have a pin-sharp image of her. She embodies teenage contradictions and confusion, her desire and certainty shackled to a lack of self-belief.
Lonely and intense, she has no sense of her own identity or physicality. She is a person not ready to be categorised, whose character has not yet set: “I mostly felt like I was barely there. My body only an idea, something that could not be trusted fully.”
An only child, her parents have recently separated, offering her no explanations other than it was best for everyone: “They both looked like they had aged 10 years and it made me question if it was possible to build future happiness on the back of causing pain to others. I thought possibly not and that people tricked themselves into thinking this.”
She goes to Temple House on a scholarship, and immediately feels unwanted and out of her depth until wealthy, sophisticated Victoria befriends her. Heedless to where it may take her or how explosive such emotions can be when forcibly constrained by a deeply repressive environment, Louisa fills her sense of emptiness and insubstantiality with a dangerous obsession. Or, as Louisa herself far more succinctly notes, “Time moved too quickly when we were together and too slowly when we were apart.”