Review: The Magdalen Girls

Set in 1962 Dublin, Ireland, The Magdalen Girls by V.S. Alexander revolves around three girls from different families committed by their parents to life at the Sisters of the Holy Redemption convent. Teagan Tiernan is accused of seducing a priest, Nora Craven is believed to have thrown herself at the boys, and Lea is a bit odd and had no place to live with her stepfather once her mother died. Denied contact with the outside world, forced to work in the hot and humid laundry with the other Magdalens or repair torn lace, the girls form an alliance and plot to escape their holy prison, but their keepers are diligent in their endeavors to flush the sins from these new charges.

Filled with authentic details, Alexander's story evolves through multiple voices, including that of the Mother Superior, Sister Anne, who has her own past sins to atone for and who believes punishment is the best way to show love. The beginning is slow, yet Alexander methodically builds the details of the dreary and demanding existence that has become daily life for these girls who had dreams and ambitions like other 16-year-olds.

"The smells of bleach and detergent that Teagan had detected when she arrived filled her nostrils. The long rectangular room contained sinks, washers, dryers, laundry baskets, ironing boards, and washing supplies. Rows of fluorescent lamps hung from the ceiling in their tent-like enclosures and cast their harsh light on the appliances and tile floor. A large bank of barred windows, some partially belowground and overlooking a trench, ran the length of the room.... Teagan covered her mouth with her hands. The Sisters of the Holy Redemption already had plans for her. How horrific could this nightmare become? Her dreams of university, of making a life for herself, lay in tatters."

As the girls' friendship progresses and their desperation to escape grows, the story quickens, racing toward an ending that is both incredibly sad and hopeful. Because the novel is historically accurate (the last Magdalen laundry closed in 1996), the events depicted are particularly distressing, forcing readers to be engrossed and horrified by what the Catholic Church and other secular and religious entities did to rehabilitate "fallen" women, who needed the grace of God to be saved from their sinful lives, no matter how true or untrue. --Lee E. Cart, freelance writer and book reviewer

Shelf Talker: A fictionalized account of life for wayward girls in the Magdalen Laundries of the Catholic Church points out the inhuman treatment these young women endured in the name of God.

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