The Furies by Katie Lowe
Violet Taylor arrives at the prestigious girl's school, Elm Hollow, on the tail end of a trauma. She is the sole survivor of the car crash that stole the lives of her younger sister and father. Her mother, the only living relative she has left, is practically comatose with grief, but in the aftermath of the accident and windfall from the life insurance, decides to enroll Violet in the private school that serves as the only glimmer of hope in what is an otherwise depressed and recessed seaside town.
The school, though, is plagued with a sordid history of murder and revenge. The founder of the school was burned at the stake, accused of witchcraft — an accurate accusation as it turns out. She was burned on the very grounds of the school she founded for orphan girls, an old and gnarled wych elm standing as testament to where she died.
Soon, Violet discovers that witchcraft is still being studied at the school, as she is welcomed into an "advanced study" class led by the art teacher, Annabelle. There, Violet joins three other students: Robin, Grace, and Alex. But Violet struggles with feeling wholly accepted by the other girls. Though Robin latches onto her immediately, her grip feels more to do with the fact that Violet bears an uncanny resemblance to Robin's former best friend, Emily — a girl who disappeared under mysterious circumstances only months before and was a former member of their advanced study group.
We follow Violet, as she narrates the school year, the girls becoming closer, entwined in a toxic friendship full of drugs and magic, mystery and misunderstandings, until things reach their climax in decisions made and actions taken that can never be undone.
I struggled with this book. Despite what seemed a fascinating premise, it proved a real slog for the first half and I was tempted to put it down again and again. I did end up finishing it, but only after forcing myself to read a chapter a day until I was done. There were a few things I thought the author did well, so I'll start with those before launching into what didn’t work.
The world building is exquisite, and I was quite taken with the seaside down and the delicately described state of disrepair. I'm also a sucker for books about English boarding schools, with their stone architecture, glass chandeliers, clock towers, and shadowed hallways. The author paints vivid scenes, and this is where her writing really shines. The dichotomy between wealth and lack is also well described. Violet's home is basically falling apart around her, the house decaying much as her mother wastes away with grief. Meanwhile, Alex lives in luxury, a grand house with antiques, an endless supply of alcohol, and an absent mother.
Despite the beautiful scene descriptions and what was often lyrical prose, the story itself fell flat. The story is written from main character Violet's perspective a couple of decades in the future, as she spins the tale of what happened in the year 1998 at Elm Hollow. But Violet is an empty shell, devoid of personality, and therefore impossible to feel anything for. And because she narrates the story and we see everything through her eyes and her lack of emotions, the plot unfolds from a distance, and it's hard to summon any response to the events that occur, no matter that they become more outlandish as the novel unfolds.
There are also numerous interjections from Violet-as-narrator to the tune of "if I'd known then what I know now..." which only increases the detached air of the book.
The most interesting thing about Violet is everything and everyone around her: the tragic deaths of her father and sister; the slow wasting of her grief-stricken mother; the best friend Robin who spins a web of chaos and deceit around her; the inseparable Alex and Grace with their whispers and shared secrets; the enigmatic art teacher, Annabelle, who has taken these four students under her wing, to train them up in the old ways of the school's witch founder. Violet herself is rendered merely an observer to all that unfolds around her, so it feels as if one is reading the story through a fog. And because Violet functions as nothing more than an observer, the reader is just observing an observer and this compounded distance is a difficult hurdle to climb.
For me, this book didn't work. Violet is more disembodied voice than main character, Alex and Grace are wholly interchangeable, and Robin is a tired cliché of every mean girl you knew in high school from her unconventional beauty to her wild streak to her penchant for lying and manipulation. The book as a whole was Mean Girls plus witchcraft, minus humor, and that's a tough niche, because what's left is just the viciousness of teen girls at their worst and most deadly, and it simply didn't make for an enjoyable read.
This review originally appeared on NetGalley. I received a free Advanced Reader Copy (ARC) in exchange for my honest review of this title.
Photo by Alisa Williams.