It’s 1998 and the start of the school summer holidays. Pupils of Elm Hollow Academy are shocked when a sixteen-year-old classmate is found dead in the grounds, sitting on a swing set with absolutely no trace of violence on her body. There is no known cause of death, but someone knows what happened, and she is about to tell.
The Furies opens with this disturbing image – of innocence and death combined – as our protagonist, Violet, reflects on the swing-set death twenty years later, enjoying the cold thrills that come with it. “She was beautiful when she was alive […] but death, it must be said, gave her something of the sublime.” Violet takes us back to the year preceding the death, narrating the events from an adult’s perspective. We begin with her first term at Elm Hollow Academy, paid for with insurance money from the car-crash death of her father and sister. Shy, reserved and friendless, and with a mother who has retreated into herself from grief, Violet is glad when Robin, a loud and confident fellow student, befriends her (remarkably quickly) and brings her not only into her friendship group but into an advanced study group led by the cold yet charismatic art teacher, Annabel. Here, they learn about ancient mythology and of the witch-burning history of Elm Hollow Academy. They study the Furies, also known as the Erinyes, the goddesses of vengeance. As Violet, Robin, Alex and Grace grow closer, they call upon the Furies’ aid, seeking vengeance for those who wronged them. In Violet’s retelling, it becomes deliciously difficult to distinguish myth from reality.
While the premise – a group of girls attend a boarding school and death or mysterious circumstances act as a catalyst – is hardly new, Lowe uses it to explore some fascinating themes, including the history of women’s role in society and perceptions of misfits as witches. Both of these are handled with skill and offer a commentary on what it is to grow up as a girl and come to terms with what that might actually mean. The narrator reflects:
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It seems that women are doomed to two fates. It is our lot to either be seen as unpredictable and irrational mortals, maligned and repressed by the actions of men; or sacred beings, goddesses of a higher realm, among the Fates and Furies.
Lowe’s use of the Furies perfectly captures teenage rage, obsession and revenge. Lowe describes the Furies standing “before the trembling girls, dressed in black sable, tall and regal; their hair writhed with snakes and fire, their fingers dripping blood”. They are, in short, terrifying, and as the girls start meddling with witchcraft, attempting to summon them, a feeling of unease creeps into the narrative.
It’s perhaps inevitable that, in a book about female-bonding, gender roles are explored, and this is a core strength of The Furies. Violet’s first romantic encounter with a boy will be all too familiar for many – “I suppose in some instinctive way, I knew the role I was supposed to play here. I’d be passionate about his interests, coy about mine” – and when he takes advantage of the situation, we see a turning-point in Violet’s sense of worth and consequent behaviour. Her descent is commingled with grief, her obsession with filling the gaps left from the death of her father and sister, the consequent withdrawal of her mother into alcoholism, with friends and Furies.
Ultimately, the sense of deterioration and decay is palpable, felt on every page and intensifying. The deterioration of a life, of friendships, trust, and knowledge of what’s real. Gothic-esque prose is peppered throughout, giving The Furies a haunting feel. Once the myth of the Furies has gripped Violet, she notes:
I ached to see the girls, to ask them if they’d felt it too – the shadow of the past emerging from the darkness, bony claws in the spaces between our ribs. The sense of eyes watching, fanged grins in the pooling dark – was it possible we could have imagined such a thing, simply because we wanted it to be true?
Between such evocative passages, Violet’s narration is guilty of the overblown metaphors and similes of an overactive and overconfident imagination – a form of storytelling that suits the character and the narrative perfectly. I’d have liked to have seen more depth in the other characters, who at times seemed rather two-dimensional, but this serves the selfishness of Violet and her perception of others only in relation to herself.
Through myth and memory, adolescence in all its facets is explored: fun, the tightness of friendship, the fragility in those very same friendships, toxic behaviour, obsession, narcissism, grimness, and liberty. Lowe has done a fantastic job of weaving so many threads together to create a hauntingly dark tale of adolescent female fury.