I really enjoyed writing a review of the last book I read so thought I’d share my thoughts on The Girls by Lisa Jewell.
Lisa Jewell introduces us to Clare and her two tweenage daughters, Grace and Pip, who move to Virginia Terrace after their house is intentionally burnt to the ground, and it soon becomes apparent who they’re running away from. Their crescent shaped community garden bordered by houses is an urban oasis in London reminiscent of Notting Hill. The children of the garden are free to run in and out of each other’s houses and spend long summer days outside like the Secret Seven. That is, until one midsummer night, Grace is found bloodied and unconscious in a dark corner of the garden and a devastating mystery filled with dark secrets begins to unravel.
Jewell gradually introduces us to the other residents of Virginia Crescent. Adele and Leo Howells are a liberal middle-class couple who can afford to buy organic everything but you wouldn’t know it from their more shabby-than-chic interior. Their three daughters, Catkin, Fern and Willow, whose names reflect their bohemian lifestyle, are home schooled by Adele. In contrast, their appalling, diabetic Grandfather Gordon, who makes Nigel Farage seem agreeable, comes to stay with his gangrene foot in need of amputation. Living above them is Cece, a social-worker who ironically neglects her daughter Tyler, prompting her to spend most of her time with the Howells family. The vividly drawn neighbours also include Tyler’s best friend and only boy in the garden gang, Dylan, and his mother Fiona, as well as Rhea, an elderly war-refugee and her giant rabbit on a leash called Fergus. (Don’t worry, there’s a beautifully illustrated map of the terrace at the beginning of the book you can refer to and remind yourself who lives where and with whom!)
The narrative is structured so that we learn of Grace’s assault at the very beginning of the book and then goes back in time to solve the mystery, making you suspicious of everyone. Each character is likeable, but only to a certain extent as they each have their individual flaws, which leaves you guessing “whodunit” until the very end. It also comes to light near the beginning that Grace’s attack echoes the murder of a young girl in the garden 30 years earlier so you can’t help but suspect that Virginia Crescent’s long-standing occupants know more than they’re letting on.
Made up of mostly girls on the brink of puberty and wrought with high emotions, the friendship group in the garden is filled with alliances, where jealousies and insecurities are rife (everything I resented about going to an all-girls school!) The harmful consequences of the girls’ politics and mind-games poignantly points out the danger of secrets. When Grace turns thirteen, the one year gap between her and her younger sister Pip noticeably widens as she starts to wear make-up and express an interest in boys. Pip on the other hand remains an innocent narrator, observant, suspicious, and wise beyond her years. Her letters to her absent father are incredibly perceptive with an outpouring of her thoughts and feelings on everyone in the garden, with little hand-drawn doodles included for extra authenticity. Switching the perspective back and forth from Pip to Clare to Adele, Lisa Jewell provides a fascinating insight from all angles into the complex relationships between and within the two families.
The setting of the communal garden is the innocent yet menacing heart of the novel. At first glance the beauty of the garden deceives its residents and us that it’s a safe haven, free from outside danger. However, it soon becomes clear that the threat comes from within, causing us to question who we can trust both in the novel and in reality. The juxtaposition of the garden’s openness and lack of privacy, being overlooked by everyone, with the dark, hidden spaces contained within, makes the crime committed seem even more sinister.
I found the ending slightly dissatisfying as I like all the loose ends to be tied up when reading a mystery but it was still a very compelling and addictive read. Lisa Jewell’s descriptions bring the garden and its residents to life to such an extent that the realism of the setting and her characters was enough to keep me reading. With most of the narrative taking place in the height of summer, The Girls is the perfect book to take on holiday. Let me know in the comments below if you’ve read The Girls by Lisa Jewell, I’d love to know what you think.
I’m now off to Google where I can buy a giant rabbit.