Two 16-year-old girls, "bored and in search of meaning", strike up a friendship in a Catholic girls' boarding school.
Louisa is the newcomer, one of the first brought in on a scholarship scheme. Suffice to say the other girls are none too welcoming. Victoria represents something thrilling to Louisa. She's rich, and seemingly sophisticated, everything that Louisa isn't, but wants to be, and before long the two are growing closer.
Then there's Edward Lavelle, the art teacher. He's a bit exotic, mysterious, nothing much is known about his background. He's also a man, quite the novelty when most of the other teachers, being nuns, are not. He's said to swim naked off the rocks at night. Some of the girls are infatuated with him, though "some thought he was ancient, at least 30".
Such is the set up of Rachel Donohue's debut novel. The author, a UCD graduate with a background in PR, won the 2017 Hennessy prize for New Irish Writing, an award previously bestowed on many writers who went on to become household names, including Patrick McCabe and Joseph O'Connor. The Temple House Vanishing was acquired in a two-book deal after being hailed as "a sort of twisted Malory Towers for grown-ups", so expectations are definitely high.
The novel largely lives up to them in terms of atmosphere. Temple House is a place where "everything was decrepit but nobody ever mentioned it". There are dark corridors and rotten windows where damp and slimy moss grows in the corners. There's even a rock pool for swimming, as in Malory Towers, except here it's "grim", with graffiti and a rusted, broken ladder leading down into the water. The nuns encourage a strict, buttoned down atmosphere of "lemon polish and silence, incense and martyrs". Black wrought iron gates are locked to shut out the world.
Of course, there wouldn't be a story if the nuns had things all their own way. Beneath the decrepitude, passions run high. Away from the main school is the Summer House, "a refuge in an enchanted forest" and home to Mr Lavelle's art room. Here, the girls can relax and explore their creativity, sprawling on couches, talking airily of art and poetry.
Is he overstepping teacher/pupil boundaries, or are they simply reading more into his attentions than he intends?
When Louisa and Mr Lavelle disappear, the school closes ranks against a garda investigation and within a year it has closed altogether. What secrets were they guarding? The case remains unsolved. Twenty five years later, with the school on the verge of demolition, a journalist who lived on the same street as Louisa decides to investigate the disappearance as a way of marking the upcoming anniversary. The two narratives - past and present - run side by side.
The novel makes no bones of its influences, from Donna Tartt's much more erudite The Secret History, to the 1975 film Picnic at Hanging Rock, and even Daphne Du Maurier's Rebecca, all three of which are also haunted by absences, and there's a lot to admire in its pages. What Rachel Donohue does, she does with artful skill. The setting, high above the sea with waves crashing in the distance, gives what happens there a Gothic, timeless flavour. It's the 1990s, but it could be any time at all, or a fairy tale world outside of time altogether.
There's a wildness to the place, matched perhaps by the emotions of the schoolgirls. Woven into this tapestry are all the archetypal unspoken, romantic girls' school undertones, as Louisa confides to Mr Lavelle that she "can't live without" Victoria, and in the distance the woods are always beckoning. There are rumours that someone hanged themselves there. What goes on in that uncanny place?
All this is evocatively done. Other elements are more problematic. The split narrative offers no real distinction between narrators. The characters too have trouble taking on a life beyond the page. At times you wonder if it's even deliberate. The section narrated by the journalist is called just that - The Journalist. She herself is never named.
The way the story unfolds lacks urgency, too. There's no real investigation as such. The narrative wends leisurely for most of the book, and then there's what feels like an unearned revelation as the journalist accompanies Victoria back to Temple House, "somehow magnificent in its decrepitude and isolation." You nearly expect to find Louisa still living there, shut off from the world, like a modern-day Miss Havisham. It's a great scene, but again its brilliance lies purely in the atmosphere, and the reveal, when it happens, amounts only to the journalist being told what happened all those years ago. No investigation has led her here. No secrets were uncovered.
An intriguing epilogue almost makes up for the sense of anti-climax, as it elucidates some of the strange detachment in the story's telling up to that point, but it feels more like an exercise in creative writing, such as those Mr Lavelle used to set the girls. In a way, The Temple House Mystery might have worked better as a young adult novel, and it's teenage readers who may ultimately take most from it, caught as they are in that same nascent space between adolescence and adulthood.