Review: The Broken Girls by Simone St. James

The Broken Girls by Simone St. James is a chilling modern-day Gothic tale about the power of sisterhood and the search for the truth to secrets that shouldn't stay buried.

In the damp emptiness of the dining hall, Anthony’s cell phone rang.

Fiona didn’t have to watch him answer it. It was enough to hear his voice, short at first, then growing harsh and tense. He listened for a long moment. “I’ll be there,” he said, and hung up.

She turned around. He was drawn and still, his gaze faraway, a man in a long black cashmere coat in a ruined room. He put his hands in the pockets of his coat, and when he looked at her, his face was pale again, his expression shaken.

“There’s been—a discovery,” he said. “I don’t—they’ve found something. It seems to be a body. In the well.”

The breath went out of her in an exhalation as the moment froze, suspended. She felt shock, yes. Surprise. But part of her knew only acceptance. Part of her had expected nothing else.

Of course there are bodies here. This is Idlewild Hall.

“Take me there,” she said to him. “I can help.”

In rural Vermont, in the struggling town of Barrons, there’s a dark place.

Idlewild Hall. A sprawling complex of decaying buildings, once a boarding school for “problematic girls.” The place where—20 years ago—the body of Fiona Sheridan’s sister, Deb, was found in 1994.

Fiona, now 36 and a journalist, is unable to truly move on with her life in the wake of Deb’s death. Tim Christopher, Deb’s boyfriend and the heir to the town’s wealthiest family, has spent the last two decades in prison for the murder. She should have closure.

But Fiona still has questions. Questions that keep drawing her back to Idlewild Hall, newly purchased and being restored by a secretive elderly woman.

When another girl’s body is discovered on the property—also murdered, but nearly 50 years before Deb—Fiona is compelled to dig into the story. This second girl deserves justice too. She deserves to have her story told, even if her killer is already dead.

But at Idlewild Hall, the dead are not silent. It has always been a place of broken, abandoned girls. As Fiona uncovers a tragedy stretching back to the concentration camps of WWII, back even further, a dark figure known as Mary Hand reaches out…

Fiona met her gaze straight on. “Why are they wrong? Is it because of Mary Hand?”

There was not a whisper of surprise, of derision, of deflecting humor on Roberta’s face. Only a softening around the eyes, which looked remarkably like pity. “She’s still there, isn’t she?” she said. “Of course Mary is still there. You’ve seen her.”

“Have you?” Fiona asked, her voice a rasp.

“Every girl who went to Idlewild saw Mary. Sooner or later.” Spoken quietly, matter-of-factly, the madness of seeing a ghost turned into an everyday thing.

Fiona could see honest truth in the other woman’s eyes. “What did she show you?” she asked.

“It doesn’t matter what she showed me,” Roberta said. “What did she show you? That is the question you need to be asking.”

“I don’t understand it,” Fiona said. “Who was she? Mary Hand?”

“There were rumors.” Roberta shrugged. “She died when she was locked out in the cold—that was one. Another was that her baby was buried in the garden.”

Fiona thought of the damp garden, the shape she’d thought she’d seen from the corner of her eye. No. Not possible.
“There was a rhyme,” Roberta continued. “The girls passed it down. We wrote in the textbooks, so the next generation of girls would be equipped. Mary Hand, Mary Hand, dead and buried under land. She’ll say she wants to be your friend. Do not let her in again! …I think Mary was there before the school was. I think she is part of that place. We were in her home. I don’t know what shape she took before the school was built, but it’s what she does—takes shapes, shows you things, makes you hear things. I have no doubt that she was a real person at some point, but now she’s an echo.”

Fiona’s throat was dry. She thought of the figure she’d seen, the girl in the black dress and veil. “An echo of what?”

Roberta reached across the table and touched the space between Fiona’s eyes with a gentle finger. “What’s in here,” she said. “And what’s in here.” She pointed to Fiona’s heart. “It’s how she frightens us all…”

With The Broken Girls, Simone St. James delivers two gothic mysteries for the price of one. The narrative bobs and weaves through time with two sets of characters.

In the contemporary mystery, Fiona searches for definitive proof that Deb’s murderer is in prison. The deeper she digs, the more she realizes everything has not been tied up into a pretty bow. Plenty of dangerous darkness lingers in the present.

Back in 1950, we meet four vastly different girls—haunted Sonia, abandoned CeCe, athletic Roberta, and beautiful Katie—who become closer than sisters through their experiences at Idlewild and their shared brokenness. Mary Hand is a real presence in their lives, but not nearly as terrifying as the traumas they’ve already overcome.

They love one another fiercely. But one of them won’t leave Idlewild Hall alive.

With this dual narrative, St. James produces a glorious chimera, interweaving historical fiction, thriller, gothic horror, and mystery into an incredibly satisfying and cohesive whole. Every character springs vividly from the page. In a predominantly female cast, St. James eschews stereotypes and creates complicated, flawed women who support one another at any cost.

The societal commentary is frequent and biting: how some lives are prioritized over others; corruption in police forces; psychological trauma going untreated, seen more as a weakness and failing than a genuine problem to be fixed; how society has constantly devalued and oppressed women.

She didn’t know everything about her friends, but these were Idlewild girls. Idlewild girls were always here for a reason. They were rough, like Katie, or impassive, like Roberta, because something had made them that way. Something they instinctively understood in one another. They hadn’t known what exactly was wrong with Sonia—they still didn’t know—but they had recognized it all the same.

Please don’t take me there, Sonia had said. CeCe didn’t know what it meant, but it was something terrible. Maybe more terrible than anything the rest of them had seen.

CeCe hadn’t been wanted, but she’d always been safe. She’d never had anything really bad happen to her. Not really bad.

Except for the water.

But the water had been a long time ago. And it had been an accident.

And, as CeCe’s mother had told her, girls had accidents all the time.

As with all of St. James’s novels, there are dashes of romance. But the true focus here is how powerfully women can love other women. Sisterhood is the beating, undying heart of The Broken Girls; without it, crimes go unpunished and the victims remain nameless.

And, of course, it wouldn’t be a St. James novel without a ghost (or two), either. Mary Hand takes a backseat to the primary plots—she’s more of a signal post, a ghostly emblem of Idlewild and the horrors the girls have already experienced. Yet her moments are perfectly eerie and unsettling, adding a supernatural, psychological flavor to the already bloody tragedies.

By the last page, St. James has gathered up every thread into a solid knot. The Broken Girls is an intense, emotional elegy on loss and pain—and wholly satisfying as a standalone novel. But I can’t help but hope St. James will buck her usual trend and turn this into the start of a series. There’s plenty more these fascinating characters can still do.

There are many more broken girls—and Mary Hands—still out there who deserve to have their stories told…

 

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Angie Barry wrote her thesis on the socio-political commentary in zombie films. Meeting George Romero is high on her bucket list, and she has spent hours putting together her zombie apocalypse survival plan. She also writes horror and fantasy in her spare time, and watches far too much Doctor Who. Come find the angie bee at Tumblr.

Comments

  1. Chris Wolak

    I, too, would love to see these characters return in a series! Nice review.

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