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"When We Were Silent" | Reviewed by Chris Stuckenschneider

Updated: Jun 6

“When We Were Silent” is an addictive novel by Fiona McPhillips about a subject that’s all too common, appearing in headlines we discuss amongst ourselves, shaking our heads in disbelief.

It’s impossible not to have empathy for the main character, Louise Manson. The teen, raised by a cold-hearted, working class mom in Ireland, is subjected to abuse from her swim coach in a book you’ll want to ingest in one sitting. Don’t avoid reading this page turner for fear of it being too graphic. McPhillips spins a narrative that walks the line but never crosses it making for a solid thriller with a sympathetic protagonist suffering at the hands of a monster others don’t see for the man he really is.

We get to know Louise as a young swimmer showing great promise, who’s transferred to a prestigious new school, and more than 30 years later as a mother, and English teacher, haunted by her past with a daughter who also has a passion for swimming. When it appears that abuse at the school has again resurfaced, Louise is pressed to give testimony, forcing her to turn back the clock at the cost of her own serenity, and face “…the truth about that night.”

As a teen, Louise never imagined she’d attend Highfield Manor, a private Catholic girls’ school with a longstanding, award-winning swim club, a school that values “silence.” Louise is granted a scholarship and admitted as a student--the administration, staid, religious sisters, bending the rules to accept a girl who’s tough, but also vulnerable as she attempts to fit in with snippy, entitled girls from prestigious, monied families. Though Highfield Manor has a good name, it has a stain on its reputation resulting from the untimely pregnancy of one of its students who gives birth in a location that's a slap in the face to the school.

Before Louise has had time to figure out which students might be safe havens at Highfield, the school’s swim team coach, Mr. McQueen, approaches her offering Louise a chance to fit in by getting involved with the team. This is the same club Louise’s friend Tina swam for—an excellent athlete who suffered a tragic end. Tina committed suicide, a death that has haunted Louise, knowing her friend would rather have been remembered for her skills in the pool than for taking her own life.

Moving back and forward in time, in sections labeled “Now” and “Then”, readers get to know Louise as a tortured mother under great stress, and as a young woman, with little support at home, initially trusting, then gradually coming to understand Mr. McQueen’s motives and involvement.

Wholly alone, Louise outwardly maintains an aura of calm while she’s being terrorized, her coach’s advances becoming increasingly bold and her fear of him increasing.

To tell more of this compelling story would ruin “When We Were Silent” a cautionary tale with powerful, unforgettable characters. Louise is especially memorable—her ongoing courage, both as a teen and as an adult, gobsmackingly admirable. One wonders how one would react faced with the nightmares she has to endure.

This debut novel proves Fiona McPhillips is an author to follow, one sure to gain fans, admiring readers anxious for her next offering.  


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