This book was first published in 1966 and it is written in a different style from most novels being published for the first time today. Set in rural Virginia during the American Civil War, a wounded soldier enters the world of a small boarding school for girls run by two spinster sisters. Narrated in turn by the residents, this book reveals its secrets slowly and as not all the writers are aware of the facts and can be less than truthful with their recall of events, the reader is kept on edge until the very end. The characters are well drawn and the story original. Could it have happened? Unlikely but...?
Set in Virginia during the Civil War, a group of eight women all live in isolation and innocence in a struggling girl’s school. There are two sisters who run the school, five female pupils varying in age from 10 to 17 and Mattie, the black slave. A man, in the form of an injured Union soldier is suddenly introduced into the mix and this is the story of what happens next.
The story unfolds sequentially with each of the eight women taking turns as narrator. What makes it interesting is that all are unreliable narrators, telling the story from their own perspective and overlaid with their own prejudices and viewpoints. Collectively they succeed in chronicling the facts in a very effective manner, while leaving plenty of ambiguity as to the motivation behind many of the actions that are taken.
I had seen the trailer for the film earlier this year and decided that I really didn’t want to go and see it – it looked too other-worldly, almost supernatural and that is not my genre at all. I therefore approached this book with a certain amount of trepidation. I need not have worried. The book is firmly grounded in reality and I found it utterly compelling. It is a fascinating account of human behavior and trust me when I say that Men Behaving Badly doesn’t even begin to cover it. It is however subtle, clever and, in my opinion, entirely plausible. In addition, there are thought-provoking questions which are not answered directly but which are left to the reader to contemplate.
It reminded me in many ways of The Turn of the Screw in that both are gothic novels with a hint of the sinister and an undercurrent of something evil, all shrouded in a veneer of respectability. It could also be seen as a social experiment in human behavior, comparing favourably in this sense to Lord of the Flies although the setting is vastly different - what happens when you leave a group of children to fend for themselves with no outside influences, or in this case, a group of naïve women and children living in total seclusion who suddenly have to cope with a man in their midst……
I loved this book and can’t praise it highly enough. I think it will come back to haunt me for some time to come, probably causing a shiver to run down my spine. Having said that, I am still unlikely to go and see a film version as I just don’t think it would live up to this great novel.