Saturday, September 19, 2009
Review: Confinement, by Katharine McMahon
Confinement is the second of Katharine McMahon’s books that I’ve read. The Rose of Sebastopol wasn’t a particular favorite, but I decided to give the author another try with this book. I was disappointed again.
This novel is one of McMahon’s earlier novels, reprinted just this past year. It centers around a girls’ school called Priors Heath, and splits time between the 1840s and ‘50s, and the 1960s, ‘70s, and ‘90s. In 1849, Bess Hardemon arrives at Priors Heath, a rather Brontean institution, to be a teacher, eventually struggling up through the ranks to become its headmistress; in 1967, Sarah Beckett is a student at Priors Heath, later returning to be a teacher herself.
Confinement constantly jumps forwards and backwards in time. Just as the author gets you comfortably settled with one story, she immediately jumps to the other. There are a lot more subtle ways to deal with time shifts such as these, and McMahon doesn’t really know in this novel how to do them. And the characters are a bit hard to understand, too. For example, Imogen’s brother Lawrence is twice-divorced, a failure at his career, and not particularly good-looking, so it was hard for me to understand why Sarah was so attracted to him. It was also difficult to understand her friendship with Imogen, too, when the girls were so different.
The author also introduces a lot of ideas, but they’re half-formed: educational reform, women’s rights, etc., are all touched on but never elaborated. Many women in the 19th century turned to teaching/governessing because it was the only option, apart from marriage, that was available to them; it’s ironic, then, that to escape her marriage and gain a bit of independence, Sarah becomes a teacher. I enjoyed the idea of the book; I just didn’t enjoy how it all was presented for the reader.