Last school year, Felicity Morrow’s girlfriend Alex disappeared. Some speculate she ran away after a humiliating public incident. Others whisper that she was killed by Felicity in a fit of rage. Now, returning to school after spending the year recuperating in therapy and a mental hospital, Felicity is back at her elite New England all-girls boarding academy, Dalloway School. She reclaims her old room in the centuries-old Godwin House, but not her previous position near the top of the social hierarchy. That’s fine as far as she is concerned. She wants to finish her senior year with as little chaos as possible. But with the arrival of her new dormmate Ellis Haley, that plan scatters like ashes in the wind.
Ellis, a hotshot novelist, transfers to Dalloway to work on a new book about the Dalloway Five. In the 18th century, five Dalloway girls died in terrible circumstances, and many believe they were murdered for being witches. Ellis embeds herself in the legends, and that includes Felicity, who spent months researching the women and the accusations of witchcraft. Felicity is drawn to Ellis, and Ellis in turn tries to help her new friend confront her trauma instead of burying it. The closer the two girls get and the more intimate their relationship becomes, the more Felicity begins to believe she’s being tormented by Alex’s malevolent spirit. Bumps in the night, figures cloaked in shadows, impossible notes left in books…is Felicity being haunted by a ghost or her own guilt? Or is something—or someone—else to blame?
Readers looking to do a deep dive into speculative fiction would do well to keep a list of all the books Lee mentions in her novel. From Shirley Jackson to Zora Neale Hurston to Margaret Atwood and beyond, Lee peppers in a dazzling array of women authors and their novels. These name drops serve a greater purpose than simple Easter eggs. A Lesson in Vengeance is a thriller, yes, but it’s also, as Felicity says, an exploration of “how depictions of mental illness are used to build suspense by introducing uncertainty and a sense of mistrust, especially with regard to the narrator’s perception of events, and the conflation of magic and madness in female characters.”
A common trope in fiction, especially horror and gothic, is for a woman to be driven mad by circumstances, mundane or mystical, beyond her control and then be punished for lashing out or attempting to restore stability. The other girls at the school recast Felicity as Rochester’s attic wife roaming free, bearing all the blame for someone else’s violent actions. Does it really matter one way or the other if the cause for her madness is magic or men if both result in her social, emotional, and possibly even physical destruction?
In Lee’s book, the mythology surrounding the Dalloway witches plays into that trope. So too does Felicity’s relationships with Alex and Ellis. Alex is mercurial and tempestuous, while Ellis is a creature of obfuscation and attraction. Felicity arrives at Dalloway with a talent for playing the part of a socialite’s daughter, and returns to school unwittingly cast as the “crazy ex-girlfriend.” Lee shows the reader how Felicity’s mental health issues are exacerbated by the abuses heaped upon her by the women in her life who are supposed to protect and care for her. They push her down paths she may not have chosen on her own and put her into positions where she can convince herself that it is better to be off her medication and tormented than on it and dependent. Lee doesn’t condemn treatment, but she does dig into the consequences of poor treatment, in both senses of the word.
Lee also touches on other big issues in independent schools and boarding schools: racism, classism, and sexism. With a protagonist who is highly privileged herself, the discussions of those heavier topics aren’t as deep as they could’ve been. Felicity is able to coast through her predominately white school not realizing the difficulties her Black classmates deal with. And while that, in my experience as a queer Black person working in independent schools, is true to how the average rich white kid functions, it makes the conversations shallower and less meaningful in the long run. Felicity has several light bulb moments but never follows them through with any action. It makes sense given the plot and character, but as a reader who is neither white nor wealthy and who is queer in ways that don’t line up with most people’s expectations, it is somewhat unsatisfying.
Queerness is at the forefront of A Lesson in Vengeance. Most important characters are queer, but being queer isn’t the main thrust of the plot, nor is this another “bury your gays” book or coming out story. I appreciated how Lee handled Felicity’s complicated feelings on being out and demonstrated the different ways and levels queer people express our identities. Of them all, I will be singing the praises of Quinn, Ellis’ nonbinary older sibling, for years to come. My only complaint is that there wasn’t enough of them in the book. There and gone again. Really, I’d love a whole book just about them. There are a few other queer background characters as well, but they don’t get as much to do.
A Lesson in Vengeance ticked all my boxes. Chillingly mysterious and darkly fascinating, with a surprising amount of depth amidst the creaking floorboards and foggy nights. Victoria Lee’s new standalone is a “just one more chapter” kind of novel. This fantasy-adjacent thriller is a good introduction for horror and gothic newbies and a twisty and twisted diversion for the well-versed. Give into the pull of the ghosts of Dalloway School.
Alex Brown is an Ignyte award-winning critic who writes about speculative fiction, librarianship, and Black history. Find them on twitter (@QueenOfRats), instagram (@bookjockeyalex), and their blog (bookjockeyalex.com).