by Bianca Zander
For whatever reason, London-based mysteries have caught my attention lately, and in addition to The Girl Below and Hide Me Among the Graves, I have a few more books with similar elements sitting here that I haven't read yet. Unfortunately, The Girl Below wasn't as satisfying as I'd hoped, though it wasn't entirely bad.
Suki Piper has just returned to London after living in New Zealand for ten years. She's in her late-twenties, jobless and nearly friendless, and she hopes that whatever familiarity she had with the city of her childhood will provide her with direction. Estranged from her father and still reeling from the loss of her mother to cancer, she feels orphaned and restless. Whenever she does run into people who knew her mother, she's unsure of what to say.
"She moved to Scotland to look after Grandma," I'd explained to one old acquaintance, telling another that she'd gone to India in the mid-nineties to find herself and was still there on an ashram. Lousy fibs but much kinder on us all. Everyone had loved my mother — no one more so than I — and if I never said out loud that she'd died, then I sometimes believed that she hadn't.
She goes to visit an old neighbor, Peggy Wright, who is now a sickly alcoholic living in semi-seclusion. Peggy still has a statue of a kneeling young girl that frightened Suki as a child. "Madeleine," as she's called, is just as unsettling to look at as an adult. Despite the concrete, dead-eyed stare, Madeleine always gives Suki the feeling of being watched.
Also unsettling is the absence of the WWII-era bunker that used to be accessible in the back garden. Though she assumes that the bunker was eventually filled in and covered, Suki can still sense its presence somewhere in the dirt. She is haunted by the time she fell inside it, the day after a party her parents hosted.
I stepped backward up the stairs toward Mum, but lost my foothold and slid in the opposite direction. The candle flew from my hand and blew out, and for a few seconds, I too was airborne before landing in a puddle of freezing cold water. From my mouth came a crunching sound, as if I'd bitten down on gravel, and a second later, my jaw exploded with pain. Hot liquid pooled in my throat, and I tried to breathe but gagged. The surrounding water was gritty with sediment and I shivered as it rose over my limbs. I reached for the glasses that should have been on my face, but they had come off in the fall.
Instead of only memories though, she starts experiencing what seem like real trips to the past. All of the sudden, she is back at that party, staring out at the darkened garden and watching her parents' friends misbehave. She doesn't yet know what she is supposed to learn by re-witnessing this night, but her flashbacks start affecting the rest of her "real" life.
Honestly, I expected something far more sinister than what actually transpires. All of these objects are affecting her, and the reasoning behind it — without completely ruining it for you — didn't feel like enough for me. I kept waiting for more progress, for the plot to pick up the pace and for Suki to get more of her shit together, but instead the bewilderment keeps carrying on. I found Suki's background interesting, but the stakes of her situation weren't so clear, other than to say, "I'm a damaged person who would like to know why creepy stuff keeps happening."
Perhaps I was missing something while reading, some grand moment of symbolism or maybe some detail that revealed a greater point, but if it was there, it must not have been made very clear. I'd like to think I'm a fairly insightful reader, and despite my tendency to take things at face value before metaphor, after the fact, those metaphors do sink in. It's just that, for me, the setup and the resolution are mismatched. The creepiness could have been amplified.
Zander's writing itself is good though, and she has an excellent talent for detail, though I must point out one quibble — The show is not "Dr. Who," it's Doctor Who. He's The Doctor. Yes, yes, I know, it's one sentence, and I'm being a pedantic super-fan, but come on. You are supposed to be an England-raised child, Suki. You should know this. (Or a decent editor should, anyway.)
The Girl Below is Zander's first novel, after an initial career in journalism and screenplays. I do think her fiction writing has loads of potential, and if she writes another novel, I may still pick it up, but this one was only so-so. Another reader might find it more satisfying than I did, but next time, I want more.
Full Disclosure: William Morrow sent me this book. I thank them for the gesture, and I will continue to be fair with my reviews.
This review is part of Pajiba's Cannonball Read, in which participants aim to read and review 13, 26 or 52 books within one year.