Book Review: The Temple House Vanishing

“Lovers are selfish. Obsessed not really with their love, but with themselves. It was what I wanted that kept me happy and awake. It haunted me and the phantoms were seductive. And I forgot to notice things.”

Located in a once grand old house built by the sea, Temple House is a boarding school run by Catholic nuns that has educated daughters of the wealthy for generations. In September 1990, in a move to appear progressive, they accept a small number of scholarship pupils into the final years. Sixteen year old Louisa welcomes the opportunity this represents. Academically impressive but something of a misfit she regards the move from her ordinary school as a chance to reinvent herself – to be noticed as something more than the girl who dares to harbour ambition. Louisa’s parents are separating and she is ready to escape the home atmosphere this has created.

The Temple House Vanishing opens twenty-five years later. A journalist has been tasked with writing a series of articles for their newspaper about a pupil’s disappearance with her charismatic young art teacher, Edward Lavelle. Details are sparse and the police investigation has been put in abeyance. Those questioned at the time closed ranks and offered little that was helpful. There was an unwillingness to provide background information on attitudes and relationships within the school. The privileged value reputation and guarded their own fiercely.

Unfolding across these two timelines, the 1990 thread is told from Louisa’s point of view as she recalls her arrival at Temple House and the events that led up to the disappearance. The school is a rarified world – one filled with archaic rules, tribal animosity and elitist resentments. Louisa sets about creating her new persona and develops coping strategies for how she is treated, grounded by a burgeoning friendship with a fellow pupil, Victoria, who has a crush on Lavelle. She is not the only pupil who harbours such feelings.

In researching the case, the journalist tracks down those who knew the girls and their teacher, or who interviewed them in the aftermath of the disappearance. A picture emerges but remains two-dimensional. The journalist needs to uncover details that only those who were there can share. The reader knows from the prologue that they spoke to Victoria, who subsequently committed suicide.

The story is of Louisa’s life at the school and the journalist’s investigation. It is a slow burn written in a mostly detached voice but with intense and dark undercurrents. The pace picks up in the second half as true facets of character are revealed. It is a lesson in the false veneer of first impressions and the blinkers donned by selfish, albeit desperate, need.

In some ways this is a tragic tale of teenage desire and frustration yet the structure employed offers a deeper interpretation. The author skillfully reels the reader in to the pressure cooked world created. A recommended read that will linger long after the final page.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Corvus.