In my last review post for 2018, I looked at a book by Hungarian writer Magda Szabó, and this year sees history repeating as I wrap up my reviewing year with another of her novels. MacLehose Press have commissioned the wonderful Len Rix to translate a book that actually appeared in the original version in 1970; with the English-language edition appearing in January, that means it’s taken an incredible fifty years for the book to reach us… To round off the year, then, it’s time to go back to school, with a teenage girl and the mysterious guardian angel watching over her in rather dangerous times.
Abigail is the story of Georgina (Gina) Vitay, a fourteen-year-old girl whose life is turned upside-down overnight when her father, a general in the Hungarian army, informs her that she is to leave her comfortable, cultured life in the capital and enter a boarding school in the provinces. Gina is stunned by the news (the reader, knowing that it’s 1943, will be rather less surprised) and devastated at being separated from her friends and family. Her pain is only intensified on arriving at her new home, a forbidding former monastery converted into a protestant boarding school for girls, an institution more suited to imprisonment than education.
Having been left stranded, the only contact with her father her weekly (monitored) phone conversations, Gina struggles to adjust to the unfamiliar environment, lashing out at her classmates and frequently breaking the many school rules. It’s only when her father reluctantly shares the real reason for the enrolment with her that she begins to settle down, knowing that both their lives are in danger. Luckily, though, she’s not quite as alone as she thinks – somewhere within the walls of Bishop Matula Academy, someone is keeping a very close eye on the new arrival.
Abigail‘s war-time setting will immediately recommend it to many readers, but the first half of the book focuses far more on Gina and her boarding school experiences. Szabó describes the girl’s anger at being exiled, with Gina taking her frustrations out on the classmates trying to include her, managing to turn everyone against her with one dramatic tantrum. There’s something very Enid Blyton about these initial chapters, the naughtiest girl in the Hungarian boarding school, if you will: the drab clothes, the uniformity of the girls’ belongings, the bells everywhere ringing out the steps of a regmented lifestyle. However, Szabó’s story has a far darker tone as it describes Gina’s ostracisation and the psychological effect the girls’ punishment has on her heroine.
Gradually, the story moves away from childish squabbles as the outside world begins to penetrate the thick walls of the academy. Realising that his daughter is struggling to settle, the general decides that he will have to reveal the true reason for sending her away:
“From this moment onwards, Gina, your childhood is over. You are now an adult, and you will never again live as other children do. I am going to place my life, and yours, and that of many other people, in your hands. What can you swear on that you will never betray us?”
p.163 (MacLehose Press, 2020)
The truth is that Gina has been sent away both to keep her safe and to ensure she can’t be used to influence him in his choices. The war is going badly, and with the Germans poised to march in and take over from the Hungarians, the general needs to be free of distractions in the dangerous days ahead. The slightest slip could be fatal, and there are far too many people out there ready to betray him, and his daughter.
The Abigail of the title has a twofold meaning, with the first being the nickname given to a statue in the school grounds. A recent tradition sees students leaving notes there in times of need, which (surprisingly) often receive a reply. However, Abigail is also the name given to the person behind these messages, someone on the school staff:
There is someone inside these fortress walls who lives a secret life, who keeps their face hidden, someone who shouts at us and scolds us, treats us either with obsequious politeness or presents him- or herself as harsh and overbearing, so that they can maintain that disguise and move around freely; someone who understands that we are all far from our parents and relations at home, and also knows how much the school demands from us, that it is often more than we can bear, and that it puts us in situations in which any one of us might come to grief. (p.187)
While Gina initially dismisses the story as childish games, she soon becomes the object of Abigail’s attentions herself. She begins to receive messages scrawled in capital letters, and each time someone covers up her many mishaps and blunders, she wonders who the mysterious figure behind the events could be.
In truth, Abigail’s secrets aren’t all that difficult to uncover as Szabó is far less concerned with creating a thriller than with showing a girl growing up fast, forced to understand that real life is far more complicated than it might seem in school. The academy is full of rules, drilling right and wrong into the students, but the most important lesson Gina learns is that this is only the starting point of a moral education. As her eyes are opened to what’s really going on in the world, she begins to understand that choices aren’t always between what’s right and what’s wrong, but between the comfortable and the potentially dangerous. Unsurprisingly, it turns out that she’s not one for an easy life…
One of the more interesting aspects of Abigail is Szabó’s choice of the voice used to carry the story along. Rix does a wonderful job of consistently bringing across this voice, with a Great Expectations-esque adult narrator looking back at their childhood. The text is peppered with phrases such as “Years later…”, “When she looked back…” and “As an adult…”, and the writer frequently foreshadows events, occasionally revealing the results before the actions that caused them. Abigail is very much a Bildungsroman in which Gina’s misconceptions are detailed, then corrected, one by one. We see how her first impressions of the teachers at the school aren’t always accurate; by the end of the story, she understands their true colours, knowing who can be trusted and how they really act when in a corner.
While at 440 pages, Abigail is probably a little long for its story, overall it’s an enjoyable novel, nicely balancing the focus on Gina’s development and the darkness looming outside the school gates. It’s about a woman looking back, acknowledging the risks taken by those wanting to help others, and a monument to the bravery of the people who worked in the war-time shadows, refusing to follow the path of least resistance. In the end, it seems that Abigail is less a person than a choice, a refusal to allow the unprotected to come to harm.