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ABIGAIL by Magda Szabó


by Magda Szabó ; translated by Len Rix

Pub Date: Jan. 14th, 2020
ISBN: 978-1-68137-403-1
Publisher: New York Review Books

Sequestered at a boarding school during World War II, a rebellious teenager confronts secrets, lies, and danger.

Published in Hungary in 1970, and translated into English for the first time by Rix, this intricately plotted novel by Prix Femina Étranger winner Szabó (1917-2007) (Katalin Street, 2017, etc.) complicates a predictable coming-of-age tale by setting it in perilous times: War rages, patriotism incites bitterness and bigotry, and a clandestine resistance movement stealthily arises. When 14-year-old Gina is sent suddenly from her home in Budapest to an elite religious school in the provinces, she feels deeply bereft: of her beloved governess, who was forced to return to her native France; of her aunt’s delightful tea dances; of encounters with a handsome lieutenant with whom she is infatuated; and, most of all, of her father, whom she loves so deeply that she “felt the world complete only when they were together.” Protected, indulged, and self-absorbed, Gina suffers protracted (and somewhat irritating) adolescent angst. She hates the academy: Once a medieval monastery, it looms like a fortress; girls, dressed in black uniforms, their hair braided unfashionably, are forbidden to bring jewelry, scented soaps, or even toothbrushes from home. Obedience to Christian precepts and school authority is strictly enforced—and, by Gina, repeatedly flouted. She breaks rules, antagonizes her teachers and classmates, and mocks rituals and traditions, including the girls’ veneration of a statue they call Abigail, which has the uncanny power to know everything that happens at the school and offer warnings and sage advice. “All my life I have been a wild thing,” Gina reflects. “I am impatient and impulsive, and I have never learned to love people who annoy me or try to hurt me.” But when her father, visiting unexpectedly, reveals the reason he had to send her away, she vows to behave and realizes that Abigail is watching over her. Far from a supernatural being, Abigail’s real identity, Gina believes, is “someone inside these fortress walls who lives a secret life.”

Urgent moral questions underlie a captivating mystery.