Friday, July 17, 2020

The Temple House Vanishing - Rachel Donohue

This is another book that's been sitting around for a while and that once I started it I couldn't put down. What follows might be considered spoiler adjacent though, so please be aware.

There were to things that really resonated with me in this book. One is that the vanishing part happens to a 16 year old girl in 1990 - which would make the character exactly my age, and the second concerns the relationship of an attractive young male teacher with his 16 year old pupils. A third parallel might be the Colin Pitchfork murders, this was still a live case when we first came to Leicestershire, and created something of the same paranoid atmosphere that Rachel Donahue describes her journalist character growing up with.

At my school there were 2 young male teachers, both would have been fresh out of teacher training and maybe 23-24. One was my form teacher, I didn't particularly like him, he wanted to be everybody's friend, but he also made snide comments about an ex girlfriend - who was the elder sister (by 2 years) of another girl in the class. Presumably because I kept a distance from him he told me for no particular reason that he thought I was manipulative, he asked my mother at a parents evening if I'd been abused. I can't imagine what that was like for her, but 30 years later I'm still furious about it.

I didn't have lessons with the other teacher, who was considered attractive. Around the time I was graduating when he would definitely have been old enough to know better it turned out he was having an affair with an A level student whilst his wife was pregnant. The girl drove her car into a tree hard enough that she was killed in the crash. The inference was that it was suicide.

None of this is particularly close to what happens in 'The Temple House Vanishing' but it's the background against which I'm judging the book, and which makes me think that Donohue's debut is particularly impressive.

Louisa has just one a scholarship to an elite catholic boarding school where the majority of the girls are hostile to her. She does make a friend in Victoria though, who seems both sophisticated, and elusive despite their closeness. There is also the art teacher, Mr Lavelle. He's young, handsome, and by any standard a spectacularly poor choice on the nun's part. The reason for his appointment seems to be that he comes from the right sort of background.

Then at some point Mr Lavelle and Louisa vanish. Coming up for the 25th anniversary of this disappearance a journalist who grew up on the same street as Louisa and vaguely remembers her is given the job of writing a series of profile pieces on the main characters in the drama. The novel unfolds in a series of flashbacks which allow Louisa to tell her story, whilst the journalist (who I do not remember being named) does her own research.

I think it's clear from the blurb that the teacher pupil relationship is going to be troubling, but Donohue keeps its exact nature ambiguous all the way through (please don't draw any conclusions from anything I say here), and her portrayal is excellent. I could sense all the way through that something wasn't right with all the relationships at the heart of this book, but every single character is nuanced and complete in a way that precludes easy judgements about them.

There are nods to Shirley Jackson here, and I think other writers too - things that struck a chord but which I couldn't quite place within the over all gothic atmosphere. The whole thing is beautifully balanced to give a sense of unease, and to make the reader ask difficult questions without giving easy answers. It's a clever, rich, and rewarding book.


  1. I wish I could track this book down. It sounds very intriguing.

    1. It came out here early spring and is genuinely really good. Hopefully it will make it's way to you eventually.