Abigail by Magda Szabo

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Translated by Len Rix

Reviewed by Harriet

Abigail magda szabo len rix

This novel, by the award-winning Hungarian novelist Magda Szabo, was first published in 1970. However, it is set in 1943-4, a crucial period in the history of Hungary during WW2. The country had been allied to Germany and Italy from the start of the war, but at the beginning of 1943 had opened negotiations with the US and the UK. Hitler found this out, and in 1944 German troops occupied the country and Hungarians of Jewish extraction were sent to Auschwitz.

I assume these facts were well known to Szabo’s original readers, but they are only alluded to obliquely in the novel and, until almost the end, are completely unknown to the protagonist, a fourteen-year-old girl named Georgina Vinay –always known as Gina. Brought up in Budapest, in wealth and comfort, by her widowed father the General, Gina has led a privileged life. She has travelled Europe with her beloved French governess Marcelle, and is very happy with her life in the mansion overlooking the city. But as the novel starts, Marcelle has returned to her native France, something Gina doesn’t really understand. But worse is to follow. Her father announces one day that she is being sent to a boarding school in Debrecan, in the east of the country. Gina is devastated. The general gives her a series of reasons – she needs to learn discipline, the country air will be good for her, he will be too busy to spend time with her –don’t satisfy her in the least and it with a sad heart that she embarks on the journey to Debrecan.

Gina has no idea what to expect of the school, but never in her wildest imaginings could she have come up with such a drastic change as the one she is presented with. Even her first sight of the school is a shock:

Another squat, square building, Gina thought. Four-square, severe, stark white. The windows covered with iron bars, iron bars across the entrance. It isn’t like a school at all. More like a fortress.

The Bishop Matula school proves to be as unwelcoming as its exterior suggests. Sternly puritanical, the school insists on its pupils giving up their own clothes and wearing an ugly uniform, surrendering all their treasured possessions, and following a set of strict rules. Gina is devastated and it’s not long before she rebels. Rebellion leads to punishment, and she’s soon unhappier than ever. She manages to alienate her fellow pupils, who retaliate by refusing to speak to her, and when she attempts to get back into their good books by giving them cakes and sweetmeats sent by her father, they throw them into the dustbin. Desperately unhappy, she seizes an opportunity and runs away, making it as far as the train station. But her hopes to escape back to Budapest are shattered when she is caught and brought back to the school by a teacher she despises, the bumbling, ineffectual König.

Eventually things settle down a bit and Gina learns to make herself accepted by her classmates. She also finds some comfort in the mysterious Abigail, an unseen helper who collects secret messages from a statue in the garden and sends comforting replies. Initially sceptical, Gina realises that whoever is behind this, it is someone with her best interests at heart. But she has a long way to go before the truth of this, and much else about her strange new life, finally becomes clear to her.

This really is a coming of age novel, and Gina has a great deal of learning to do before the final events lead her into yet another major change in life. One of the most important lessons she has to learn is how wrong she has been in judging the characters of her teachers – the schoolgirls take great delight in imagining secret love affairs between them, all of which turn out to be completely deluded, and people she disliked turn out to be much more human than she had imagined. But it’s not just the life within the school that Gina has to reassess, it’s also what’s going on in the wider world. She finally comes to understand the dangers and threats which her father wanted to protect her from, and her secret communications from Abigail go a long way to saving her life.

According to the publisher’s blurb, Abigail is the most widely read novel among secondary school pupils in Hungary. It’s easy to understand why a teenager would enjoy it – who doesn’t love a boarding-school story? But to dismiss it as simply a YA novel would be doing it a grave disservice. The narrative is handled with great skill, so that we simultaneously sympathise with Gina’s point of view and see how deluded some of her judgements are.  I guessed the identity of Abigail quite early on, though it’s not revealed to Gina until the end of the novel. And then of course there’s the political background, of which she is almost entirely unaware until events gradually bring home to her the dangerous climate in which she and her fellow pupils are living. This becomes an important theme, and, although Gina doesn’t yet fully understand what’s happened, Abigail is actually instrumental in saving the lives of four Jewish girls, by stealing their birth certificates and replacing them with faked Protestant ones. The theme of resistance runs throughout the novel – someone has to be responsible for hanging subversive messages on the statue in the town square, and, in a clever coup, changing the numbers on boards which the church uses to announce the morning readings, resulting in some disturbingly radical, anti-establishment readings.

I enjoyed this novel tremendously and learned a lot of history I wasn’t previously aware of. As it progresses it becomes more and more of a page-turner, and I raced though the final chapters, anxious to know how things were going to turn out for Gina. Admirably translated by Len Rix, this is highly recommended.

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Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books and once ran away from boarding school, with more success than Gina.

Magda Szabo, Abigail, trans. Len Rix (Maclehose, 2020). 978-0857058485, 448pp., paperback original.

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