Avril is a fat, lumpy, sexually abused, repressed business graduate with low self-esteem escaping her dominating mother; Bernadette (Bernie) Kavanagh is an Irish barmaid with low I.Q. and a poor education who's nursing a broken heart; and Kirsty Hoskins is a battered, persecuted mother of two hiding from her husband. What these three have in common is a job at the sophisticated Burleston Hotel located in Cornwall.
After a chilling first paragraph, this book advances rapidly, taking us through several dips and peaks in character and plot to end on a very realistic note. The style is descriptive and often, we are made to observe characters through the eyes of their partners-in-fiction. Kirsty thinks about Bernie, Bernie about Avril and Avril analyses Kirsty's children Jake and Gemma. This adapted "stream of consciousness" narrative mode embellishes the author's story-telling skills.
The ride starts with Kirsty finding a book entitled "Magdalene" written by someone named Ellen Kirkwood, published 1913, in the hotel library one day. She reads it and decides, on a whim, to rewrite and sell it in her own name. Since she's hiding from her abusive, violent husband, Bernie is projected as the author of the book. Avril plays the role of typist in this scheme, and sends the first proof off to Coburn and Watts - a reputed publishing house run by Rory Coburn. A literary agent in his employ, Candice Stone chances on the proof and finds it gripping. Convinced of its success if published, she contacts Kirsty - and the whole chain of events is put into motion. Bernie goes off to London for book publicity and editorial corrections, and her ex-boyfriend Dominic Coates is blackmailed by Kirsty into accompanying her. This is Kirsty's way of ensuring that Avril and her own share of the money doesn't get swallowed up by the now selfish Bernie.
Avril's brother Graham Stott, released from jail and not welcomed into his own home is forced to walk the streets penniless. In his desperation, he commits murder and then travels to Cornwall to make Avril give him an alibi, and so save his skin.
Simultaneously Trevor Hoskins tracks down his wife and arrives at the hotel, just as the body of Ed Board - the hotel's professional golf trainer - is discovered near the hedges.
So, it's three murders, two criminals (one only a suspect and the other unknown), a fire, two charred bodies, a dead cat, a rotting house and a sleek hotel that constitute the ingredients of this convoluted plot. Towards the end, we see our three protagonists stronger, tougher and more mature - all because of Magdalene. She is the nun in the book by the same title who discarding her habit at night is shown to maul the very men whom she entices with her killer charms. This character's dark life and radical ideas become a part of each of these women and reforms their fearful, snivelling and timid personalities so that they each achieve a degree of confidence and decisiveness never known by them before.
White's remarkable psychological penetration and an unusual plot makes this novel intriguing and murky, leaving the reader's appetite for suspense and mystery more than just satisfied.This article was first published on 03 Jul 2000.