I saw this book reviewed by Jo Cotterill and, from her description, I knew it was a book my eldest would enjoy. When it arrived whilst she was at school, I just had to start reading it myself and I was immediately hooked. What a great starting point for a story! It is 1890 and seven girls at St Etheldreda’s School for Young Ladies, Ely, Cambridgeshire are having Sunday lunch with their headmistress and her ‘odious’ brother when the pair of them drop down dead. What to do? The girls, worried about being sent home (they all have issues with their home lives), decide to dispose of the bodies themselves and carry on living at the school in some kind of utopian sisterhood.
Unfortunately things get in the way, as they do in good book plots, and what follows is a darkly comic murder mystery that seemed to me like a hybrid of the best 19th century literature and Joe Orton’s ‘Loot’. The seven girls, who are blessed with the wonderfully characterful names of Disgraceful Mary Jane, Smooth Kitty, Pocked Louise, Dear Roberta, Dull Martha, Dour Elinor and Stout Alice, set about trying to solve the mystery whilst at the same time maintaining the pretence to their little community that their headmistress is still alive. The reader is drawn into a romping journey of discovery along with the girls themselves. By the end, the reader is genuinely concerned for all of the girls and firmly on their side. The conclusion has its own surprises (I won’t give the ending away!) and everything is tied up very neatly.
It is categorised as middle grade, the US term that we’re borrowing in the UK for fiction for the 8-12 year group. My daughter is 8, but a higher ability reader. I was a little wary about references to Disgraceful Mary Jane’s flirting and behaviour towards men, but it was handled well by Julie Berry and it was kept to whispers in the ear and kisses on the cheek. With almost all of the girls on the cusp of womanhood, there are hints at relationships between the other girls and young men, which were cleverly in keeping with the era and setting of the story. I loved the characterisation in the book and could visualise all the characters. The plot was great and kept me guessing right to the end. My daughter loved it so much that she couldn’t put it down. She started it on the Friday that it arrived and finished it by Monday. I wasn’t far behind her.
I can highly recommend this original tale and I’m looking forward to reading more of Julie Berry’s work in the future.