Returning to childhood when memories seem wrong.
Publisher: Alma Books
First Published: 19th June 2012
Date Reviewed: 28th February 2013
After ten years in New Zealand and twenty years away from home overall, Suki has returned to London hoping to get back to being who she was; but it’s not going to be that simple. Friends have moved on and no one wants her staying with them, but when she returns to her old apartment block she discovers her family’s neighbour, Peggy, still lives there. She might have found some stability with Peggy and the woman’s daughter, but Suki finds herself haunted by the air-raid shelter that used to be in the garden, no longer there, and what happened the night she descended the stairs.
The Girl Below is a compelling novel, equally driven by characters and plot, that is perhaps best described as realistic magical realism. Mostly consisting of thoughts but having an element that suggests the otherworldly, the book focuses on the reasons a person’s life can spiral completely away from what they had intended, and the need to recover from it when it’s not been a positive factor.
Aiming for detail, Zander tells her story by way of a duel plot line – Suki describes her former life and what is happening in the present. Unlike many stories with such a structure, Zander’s tale invites, perhaps, an equal amount of interest in both storylines, meaning that whilst you inevitably want to get on with the story and find out what happened, there isn’t that ingredient part and parcel of many books where one era is more interesting than the other. There is no divide between the two periods, perhaps because they are not so far apart compared to other books. And the number of characters that inhabit both eras mean you don’t feel like you’re reading two stories.
‘Who am I and how can I be me again?’ is the theme, with Suki’s constant nocturnal travels, in the present day, taking her back to that night she could have died in the flooded air-raid shelter. Because of her parents’ style of living and her father’s choices there has been much for Suki to understand. Whilst understandable, Suki’s character may prove difficult for some, however her actions fit the time period. She does think some thoughts which seem odd for her age, yet this is the first sign of the issues of the book. And as Suki discovers more she realises her childhood memories may not be correct.
The problem with The Girl Below is that whilst Zander wraps some of the plot points up in that dark, complex, and not-quite-obvious-but-fully-implied way that authors of magical realism do, a good half or so of all the questions you have are never answered or referred to at all. You could make guesses of course, but there is scant evidence or reasons for which to back those guesses up, and unfortunately these lost points are some of the most intriguing, the ones most likely to have kept you up at night to find out the truth.
It is for this reason that Suki’s development is stilted at the end. The author has Suki tell you, if not in so many words, that she understands now, but there is not enough showing for the reader to know why. And so abundant are Suki’s strange thoughts, for example that a statue is real, that there really needed to be explanations rather than very very vague suggestions. Suki’s sexual decisions needed more time, too, especially as they are taboo. It’s a case of feeling that the author wants you to be able to relate to Suki without giving you the information you need to know. The reader has to get used to an anxious, childishly scared, and unmotivated person, without a full discloser. It would have also been good to have further insight into Peggy’s grandson, Caleb, who presented an interesting addition to the tale but, whether to illustrate Suki’s anxiety or otherwise, has the focus on his behaviour somewhat diminished in the end.
And this is a pity because overall the book is fantastic and with more attention paid to reasoning it would have been a triumph. The pace is steady, the plot and atmosphere spooky, and there are plenty of times where, for the magical realism, you wonder if you’re reading a suspenseful scene (this wondering itself causes the suspense). One can work out a lot about Suki in the realm of possibility, but it’s not enough.
Writing-wise the book is on the whole very good. The author switches between contemporary British language and some rather old fashioned slang. Zander’s skills as a journalist shine through and it’s obvious she’s brought her own story of the immigrant to the table.
So the difficulty comes, then, in explaining why in general this is a superb book and why you should want to read it. Perhaps the best way to recommend it is to say that in choosing this book you are choosing to be scared, choosing atmosphere over story. Certainly you have to be willing to use the untied threads as a springboard for your own imagination. This book will, without a doubt, divide opinion. It will cause many people to wonder at the fact of a seemingly incomplete manuscript being published, whilst yet providing a satisfactory way to spend reading time. Maybe you will come to a conclusion that trumps all others, the issue is there is absolutely no way of knowing if you are anywhere near correct.
Still, I got the thing open, and propped up the sash with a hardback Dickens omnibus from Harold’s schoolboy collection. With much trepidation, I leaned a little way out. the night air was still but also sultry, humid. With one eye on Dickens – his long-windedness holding fast – I leaned out a bit further and dared to look down.
The Girl Below is unfinished, but brilliant.
I received this book for review from Alma Books.
March 4, 2013, 3:46 pm
I hadn’t heard of this book before now but I love a bit of magical realism so I think I may just have to add this to me wishlist :-)
March 6, 2013, 12:59 pm
Jessica: If you like magical realism then I’d say you’d like this a lot. It take you to a level that you wouldn’t expect, even from the summary.