by Ciarán West
What makes Ciarán West's books interesting is how they confirm that “page-turner” is not just a cover blurb cliché. Even when one might have other things they should be doing, they can be done after “one more chapter.”
Girl Afraid centers around the kidnapping of Poppy Riley, daughter of a well-known actor, Tom, who is away filming. Poppy had been left in the care of Alice, her father's trusted assistant, and Magda, the girl's recently hired nanny. Alice wakes up to a phone call from a man who claims to know what happened, but first she must get out of the house and follow his directions — and off we go into a fast-paced story with multiple points of view, bit by bit discovering what has and what will happen.
The multiple points of view are from a whole host of characters — everyone from Alice, to Alice's ex-boyfriend Dylan, to Poppy herself, to several different men who want to do normally unspeakable things to the girl. (We'll get to that in a moment.) And several others. The only complaint I have for Girl Afraid is that sometimes the head-hopping could be hard to follow, especially with how the Kindle formatted the paragraph breaks, if the point-of-view change happened after a page-swipe. Perhaps an asterisk was in order to delineate the change.
Now, my brain is sometimes more foggy than your average attentive reader, so this might not be an issue for everyone. It's not exactly a case of too many characters — though Dylan's storyline added the least to the overall plot — but without another read through, I can't say what besides an asterisk would have made the POV shifts more clear to me.
Perhaps I needed to quit blowing through page-swipes and to slow down, but with the OMG-Factor set so high, I doubt most readers are taking a leisurely stroll through the book.
Now back to that phrase “normally unspeakable:” Often when it comes to the sexual abuse of children and pedophilia (pedophilia differentiated here as someone who enjoys the thought of underage sexual content, but has not necessarily committed the act), we hear about it secondhand. It's often from the person trying to stop it (Alice), or the investigating officer (don't trust the police in this story), or through the dramatic irony of the clueless character who hasn't yet realized what's going on (in this case, a man-for-hire called Bob).
Bob lit up a cigarette. There wasn't an ashtray; he had been flicking them into an old peanut packet he found in his coat. It wasn't the sort of place you could put ash on the floor, he thought. It was a beautiful house, and immaculately clean. He hadn't seen the outside. He had been working for their outfit for almost a year, but he knew little about who they were. He had never met the boss, or heard a name mentioned.
A van had picked him up at eleven from outside The Crown. The text had said to get in the back when it came. He hadn't talked to the driver. No windows either, so he had no idea where they’d taken him. He was sure that that had been a deliberate thing. They were professional and discreet. He hadn't made many friends, but the money had been good.
He had spoken to a Polish woman when he arrived. She had told him what to do. He was to sit outside the room at the table and watch the blue light. They’d given him a tray with some food and drink on it. When the blue light came on, he was supposed to unlock the door and bring it into the room. He wasn't to let the child see or hear him, and he shouldn't engage her in any way. He was in and out in quickly, when the time came. He heard her singing to herself in the toilet. Baa, Baa, Black Sheep, or something with a similar tune. He felt a pang of guilt as he let himself out. He was fond of kids, and always had been.
West takes us into the mind of not one, but several pedophile characters, each with a very different profession and history behind their interest in Poppy Riley. Yes, it's disturbing, and yes, we're not meant to like these characters, but that doesn't necessarily mean we shouldn't hear from them. We are all the more invested in Poppy's rescue this way, and certain aspects of the plot are most efficiently revealed when told through the voices of these awful characters.
But no, that doesn't mean that this book is for everyone. It is both physically and psychologically violent at times, and it's up to the reader to say if their discomfort outweighs their interest.
The box was full of clothes, and other things which were unfamiliar to Poppy: a small wooden paddle with three holes in it; a long silver object which she thought resembled a bullet, and the toothpaste tube which didn't say ‘toothpaste’ anywhere on it. Poppy held the silver thing in her fingers; it was big for a bullet. She thought it might be a tank bullet. She twisted the cap to see if she could look inside, but instead of coming off, it made a buzzing sound and began to shake. She dropped it in the box and it rolled around in there, making a noise against the wood like her father’s phone did when he got a call. She picked it up and twisted it again to turn it off. This time the lid came away, and inside she saw some batteries; one on top of the other, like in a flashlight. She put the lid back on carefully and put the thing away.
It was mostly clothes in the box. Bras, knickers, tights; and a few things she recognised, but didn't know the names for. They looked like adult clothes to her, but they were so small, a child might have fit them. She held one of the bras up against her and giggled. She wondered would it be okay to try them on. She liked costumes and dressing up. And having something to do might take away her frightened feelings, the same way it took away bored ones. She sorted through the silky pants and stockings, choosing what to try on first. They felt nice to touch, so they’d probably feel even nicer when you had them on, she thought.
Though the craft of the writing itself takes a few chapters to hit its stride, West keeps all his plot pieces moving together effortlessly. From the beginning, we're invested in Alice and Poppy's safety, and the story avoids Lifetime Movie over-dramatics. Perhaps what is most disturbing about Girl Afraid is how very real it all is. No one is a caricature, and the people who are interested in Poppy all appear “normal” to the public. That any person you see, no matter how put-together and successful they might seem, could be capable of terrible things is where some readers might find it too much to bear.
And it is scary. What Ciarán West has written is not exactly a thriller — it's a horror story. The monsters are here, and they're on TV, on sports teams, around the corner, and on the police force. Anywhere. No wonder some reviewers have been shocked.
In the same way readers moved past that shock to read Alissa Nutting's similarly-themed Tampa, I do hope people give Girl Afraid a look. In those uncomfortable places, we learn about our own character, and we learn how to process the shadows that we're normally all too keen to ignore.