Miss Timmins’ School for Girls is a rather bland title for a book, with a cover photo of girls walking in the rain that seems as if it could have been taken anywhere. There’s something quite beautiful about the colours, though, and the suggestively ethnic design of the border provides our first hint of how deceptive and artificial that portrayal of ordinariness really is.
Right from the very first page we’re teased with the central mystery, and introduced in such a way that we’re immediately suspicious of the various narrators. With a teacher’s body discovered beneath a rain-swept cliff, another teacher already fleeing a scandal back home, a group of teachers too liberated to set a proper example, a story of taboo love, and a few overly curious students, the stage is set for a literary journey across the world and back in time.
For me, this was a bit of a difficult read, only because the culture (and its associated struggles) is so very foreign. There is a strong contrast between cultures, religions, and classes that is revisited throughout the story. At times, I found my fascination with the characters and their surroundings actually pulled me out of the story, forcing me to go back and reread certain passages to regain the thread of the plot. The fact that the plot seemed a bit disjointed at times likely didn’t help, but that’s not a complaint, just an observation.
I must say, the language here is lush and beautiful, almost lyrical at times. The narrative voices are very strong, authoritative, and entertaining, and yet never entirely trustworthy. Some voices had more impact than others, but it’s a style of writing that suits the mystery element very well (even if it detracts, a bit, from the cultural elements). While the main characters were very well developed, the supporting cast ran the gamut from generic to fascinating, with some existing only to advance the plot. I would have liked to see either a few less characters, or a little more time spent developing them, but that’s a minor point.
In the end, it’s the strength of Charu that carries the novel, and her development – both socially and emotionally – that kept me reading. Her story alone could have made for an interesting novel, serving as part travelogue and part romantic drama. At the same time, the mystery could very well stand alone as a much shorter novel, and might even benefit from the added focus. Somehow, though, it’s the mingling of the story lines and the genres that appealed to me most, almost (and perhaps intentionally) mirroring the mingling of cultures and classes.
All in all, an interesting read, and one that’s very well told.