Review of The Broken Girls, by Simone St. James


The Broken Girls appealed to so many of my favorite literary tastes: It is a ghost story, a school story, a historical, and a contemporary mystery story in which the main character Fiona investigates both the disappearance of a schoolgirl in 1950 and the murder of her sister Deb in in the 1990s. As a school story it belongs to the subspecies of terrible schools; the most famous examples in literature are Dickens’ Dotheboys Hall and Charlotte Brontë”s Lowood. Like its Victorian progenitors, Idlewild Hall was essentially a dumping place for unwanted daughters. Our story centers on four in November of 1950: Katie, CeCe, Rebecca, and Sonia, the French girl who mysteriously disappeared. The ghostly apparition is that fixture of school tradition, the resident ghost. She’s called Mary Hand, a black shrouded figure whose appearance embodies the girls’ worst inner fears. Although these girls are very damaged by their pasts and when we first encounter them we are very aware of their flaws, as the reader sees them bonding as roommates, they not only became sympathetic, but we find ourselves coming to love them. But the end of the book, I was tearing up discovering what becomes of them. They have that quality that makes characters come alive for me; I wished they could be my friends. Besides ghosts, school friendships, and murders, Simone St. James introduces another sure-fire ingredient: Nazis! I was delighted in her acknowledgements that she cites Sarah Helm and Elizabeth Wein, two of my favorite writers. The backstory is not perfectly done. The school principal could not have worn a polyester blouse in 1950, or the girls have a portable transistor radio or read an unexpurgated version of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, and probably not have seen a newsreel of Auschwitz (though they might of Belsen or Dachau), But though I found the concentration-camp aspect of the solution required too many implausible coincidences, in the story it works and that’s what matters. Fiona’s story stretched my credulity as well (especially the discovery of the school records) but Simone St. James carries it off with sufficient aplomb to make it believable. In that sense The Broken Girls reminds me bit of Tana French’s The Likeness: the almost impossible seems probable as the story is told and everything comes together in a nicely wrapped plot. And the setting in the abandoned school fallen into ruin is perfect for the paranormal. It’s early days yet, but I suspect this book may well be my year’s best.