Ghost Girl by Helena McEwen

Nietzsche and the sadistic nuns
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The Independent Culture

Helena McEwen's first novel, The Big House, was a semi-autobiographical effort, loosely based on the suicide of her brother. Its personal subject matter caused McEwen some problems - in interviews she repeatedly denied connections between the novel and her own life. But it gave her debut a haunting lyricism and truthfulness that sometimes only a real life experience can grant.

Helena McEwen's first novel, The Big House, was a semi-autobiographical effort, loosely based on the suicide of her brother. Its personal subject matter caused McEwen some problems - in interviews she repeatedly denied connections between the novel and her own life. But it gave her debut a haunting lyricism and truthfulness that sometimes only a real life experience can grant.

It is tempting, therefore, to read her second novel through the window of autobiography too and imagine McEwen is describing her own school years. Her protagonist, Cath, is 13 years old and unhappily boarding at a school run by nuns. Her father is a diplomat in Jakarta; her mother is glimpsed only briefly and condemned as a social butterfly with little time for her daughter. Family to Cath then means her 17-year-old sister, Very, who is living a bohemian lifestyle in London as a penniless art student. It is the era of Punk; when Cath gets to visit Very on short school holidays, she witnesses the chaotic freedom of Very and her friends, the drugs, the music, the sexual openness and the infantile criminality.

I'm not sure I've ever read a book where a convent education has been described as a pleasant experience, and the feeling of veracity in McEwen's account suggests it may well have been a reflection of her own time at school. On the other hand, there is a literary precedent for a portrayal of this kind. The schoolgirls bully each other, the ugly, the overweight or the eccentric ones having the hardest time of it. The nuns are no better: sadistic, bitter or lonely, they are nuns who, in the words of Antonia White's Mother Radcliffe from her 1933 novel Frost In May, want to see "every will... broken completely and re-set before it can be at one with God". In McEwen's novel, Cath's Mother Radcliffe is Mother Agatha, who reads a letter that Very sends to Cath quoting Nietzsche, and bans any more visits to her sister: "Mother Agatha looks at me and under her gaze I turn into a rotten apple, small and contagious. "I am not like Verity, but I'm not like her, I don't even like her really, she's just my sister...' "

Cath's betrayal of her sister precipitates a nervous breakdown that has been threatening all through the novel, but she is rescued by the sister she tried to disown - Very writes, pretending to be "Uncle Bill" so that Cath may continue to stay with her during holidays. The other girls finally defy nasty Sister Campion in one lesson, banding together in precisely the way the nuns have tried so hard to undermine.

But McEwen's counter-pointing of Very's punk world with Cath's convent one is a little too simplistic - one is all freewheeling bohemia, dangerous but never quite that dangerous; its opposite is authoritarian and oppressive. While she portrays a young girl's development with sensitivity and insight, ultimately McEwen shies away from the larger political point that her own structural opposition demands should be made.

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