This cult coming-of-age novel from Magda Szabó (1917–2007), first released in Hungary in 1970 and now translated into English for the first time, is imbued with humour, warmth, and a gripping plot.
It is 1943, and the protagonist, Gina Vitay, is a spoiled and headstrong teenager from Budapest, whose life is radically changed as her father, a general in the army, sends her to a secluded Calvinist boarding school for girls in eastern Hungary. The school is a hermetically sealed world with its own strict rules and regulations: Gina must cut her hair, give up her prized possessions, and exchange her clothes for a dated school uniform that demands conformity down to the underwear. On their supervised walks, she observes that the students appear, “in their appalling hats and with the tulip-embroidered bags on their shoulders, like an elongated swarm of identical blue insects.” She pines for life back in Budapest, including the affections of a young Lieutenant called Feri. When she betrays her new classmates’ trust by revealing a secret tradition to the teachers, Gina’s peers ostracise her, and she resolves to escape.
Despite plenty of propaganda to the contrary, Hungary is losing the war. A dissident causes outrage and commotion among the students and teachers by plastering the town with posters that declare: “Stop this pointless shedding of Hungarian blood! [...] Save the lives of your children for a better future!” Finally, Gina knows she must stay within the school’s confines for her safety and the safety of her father.
An act of desperation leads to her contact with Abigail, a mystifying garden statue the other students insist grants their wishes. Yielding to the schools’ traditions, Gina eventually befriends her classmates and becomes absorbed in the school’s domestic dramas. The teachers’ suspected romances and the minutiae of the school girls’ day-to-day lives are sometimes overdrawn, however, bringing the pace to a crawl in the centre of the novel. The plot finds its legs in the end, though, unraveling in a series of last minute twists that foregrounds the question of who is truly immune from war.
The statue Abigail instructs Gina to execute a daring plan to swap four Jewish classmates’ documents for counterfeit Christian papers. Here, her teenage narcissism begins to give way: “the concerns that had struck her with such force were ones that had always lurked in the depths of her consciousness, only she had never given them much thought because they had not touched her personally.” Before long, she finds herself at the centre of a plot to expose her father as part of the Hungarian resistance.
Inspired by Szabó’s own experience as a teacher at a religious boarding school for girls in the early 1940s, the book excels at insights into tumultuous adolescent friendships and boarding school psychology. The author writes with generosity and warmth – she is equally gifted at evoking dramatic tension as she is laughter; when escaping in the middle of the night through the dormitory window, Gina comically dons multiple pairs of underwear donated by her classmates to keep her warm in the chilly garden. While the language feels dated at times, Len Rix’s translation is empathetic and intuitive, capturing the sense of magic and adventure in the girls’ school.
After being stripped of her literary prizes, censured, and labeled an enemy of the Communist Party, today Szabó is once again celebrated in her country, as well as abroad, with both Abigail and her best known work, The Door (1987), as some of the most popular works of fiction in Hungary.
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