THE GIRL BELOW
Author: Bianca Zander
Alma Books RRP $19.99
Review: Monique Mulligan
The Girl Below is an unusual book in that it’s hard to define its genre. Part family drama, part mystery, part suspense and part supernatural (although the latter only mildly), it almost seems as if the author couldn’t make up her mind what she was writing, but I think she had a pretty good idea of what she was doing. By describing it as unusual, don’t think that it’s not a good read. It is. In fact, it’s very good. I found it quite compelling and read it quickly, keen to discover the mystery alluded to a few pages in. It’s just … different.
Suki Piper returns to London after 10 years in New Zealand. However, she’s dismayed to find that her old home, the city itself, won’t let her in – no one is friendly, she’s hard-pressed to find a job, she’s couch surfing; Suki’s sense of entitlement as a former Londoner quickly deflates as she realises that coming home is not going to easy and no one is exactly welcoming her with open arms. On her second day in London Suki returns to her childhood home, hoping that will help her reconnect with her past life; seeing that an old family friend, Peggy, still lives in the building, Suki presses the buzzer. What does she have to lose?
Visiting Peggy stirs up memories Suki had pushed down deep: memories of an old air-raid shelter, a relic from the Blitz; memories of Madeline, a granite statue owned by Peggy that invoked a sense of fearful horror in Suki as a young girl; memories of a hand grasping from a downstairs cupboard. Suki leaves the house feeling unsettled, describing Peggy’s apartment as “An apartment so like a museum that briefly, I rationalized, it had pulled me back with it into the past”.
Some months later Suki meets up with Pippa, Peggy’s daughter. She soon becomes drawn into Pippa’s home and family, first as a temporary carer for the ailing Peggy, and later as a “positive influence” for Pippa’s 16-year-old son, Caleb. But the more involved she gets in the present, the more the past seems to have a hold on Suki. Whether flashbacks, hallucinations or time-travel – it’s not really clear, and I’ll come back to this – Suki keeps returning back in time to the night of a party her parents threw in their garden. A night when something happened in that deep, concrete bunker.
Author Bianca Zander writes evocatively and cleanly. She manages to evoke tension, horror and a welling sense of creepiness without overdoing it with poetic language. Her description of Madeline, the statue with the freaky dead-eyed stare gave me goosebumps; it reminded me of my long-held conviction that the witch from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was alive and well on my roof, ready to pluck me from the ground should I venture out after dark. With her carefully chosen words, the bunker of Suki’s childhood becomes a chamber of horror, waiting for Suki to come closer.
The narrative shifts easily between the past and present; the reader sees Suki as she is now and as a child. Later the memories overlap, which is a little confusing for the reader, but reflects Suki’s confusion and struggle to retain a grip on the now. As it became clearer that Suki had a number of mental health problems, I wondered, understandably, whether there was some horrendous repressed memory to do with that bunker that was stirring up hallucinations. The ending doesn’t really answer that; for some that may be unsatisfying. I came to realise that the point was more about the frailty of human psyche and how easily it can be damaged; it was more about Suki’s development and growing self-awareness than anything else.
The Girl Below is a haunting, challenging and compelling debut novel from a writer who I think has a lot to offer. It’s rich in character development, tension and imagery, but at the same time, subtle. It’s a darkly intriguing read bound to be even richer the second time around, after all the tension has stewed and the flavour of language heightened.
Available from good bookstores and Allen & Unwin. This copy was courtesy of Bloomsbury Australia.
Bookish treat: A hearty bowl of stew made a day ahead, eaten slowly while savouring the taste and the story.