THE VALE GIRL
Author: Nelika McDonald
Pan Macmillan RRP $29.99
Review: Monique Mulligan
Atmospheric and evocative, The Vale Girl is a cleverly written debut novel from Nelika McDonald comprising mystery, shrewd observation and intriguing characters. I’d heard some good remarks about this one so I went in expecting a good read … and I got it.
The book opens with Sarah Vale, the fifteen-year-old daughter of the town prostitute, being bullied by an arrogant teenage boy and his friends. In some ways it’s nothing new for Sarah, who has always been the child no one was allowed to play with. Lately, the bullying has taken a menacing new turn, with the perpetrator, Cameron, asserting his sexual power (someone’s got to ‘break her in’, he reasons). Only Tommy, Sarah’s long-time friend and also a latchkey kid, cares enough to try to stop things going further.
When Sarah goes missing no one seems particularly worried. Her mother, Susannah, doesn’t even seem to realise Sarah is missing, so it falls to Tommy to report Sarah’s disappearance. He convinces the town’s policeman, Sergeant Henson, to take Sarah’s disappearance seriously and soon an investigation is under way. The response from the town is indifferent, which infuriates Tommy and confounds Henson; he’s disturbed to find the town is more concerned about its upcoming Grevillea Festival to care about the daughter of the ‘town whore’. No one seems to know anything, but both Henson and Tommy believe certain people are holding back from them, including the somewhat strange Graham Knight.
“If you leave no trace, nobody could say later whether you were even there at all.”
Set in the fictional country town of Banville, the story is told from the multiple perspectives, including Sarah’s as a first-person narrative, and Tommy’s, Henson’s and Graham’s as third-person narratives. After Sarah went missing, I started to wonder if this was another book in the vein of Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones, especially in light of Graham’s strange behaviour – another reviewer on Goodreads has noted the same – but, without spoiling anything, it’s not. McDonald does well to create an atmosphere of menace and foreboding – for much of the book I felt unsettled and unsure about what had (or would) happen to Sarah. It’s subtly done; a gradual feeling of unease that carries through the entire book. Great writing!
One of the things that stood out for me was the depiction of parent-child relationships and the town’s acceptance of them. Through Tommy and Sarah, McDonald has contrasted two forgotten children and absent parent scenarios. Tommy’s father disappears for stretches of time, leaving Tommy to fend for himself, and his mother died years earlier. Tommy’s experience of this is poignant: “He made everyone he loved disappear”. Many of the townsfolk quietly look out for Tommy, slipping him food and so on. It’s different for Sarah. Her mother is physically there, but not emotionally; most of the time she’s drunk and Sarah has taken on the role of caretaker, preparing food, maintaining the house and so on. There’s no doubt the community is aware of Sarah’s plight, but because of who she is – or who her mother is – there’s no compassion thrown her way. Sarah observes this in a matter-of-fact, it-is-how-it-is manner: “But the way they hated my mother and I was quieter, like a low drone of a mosquito following you everywhere you went.” Essentially, Banville is a character in its own right, composed of a community that’s scared and mean at times, and selfish and compassionate by turns; reading this, I found myself frustrated, even angry, with Banville as a whole, rather than individual townsfolk. As I explored the relationships further, and the town’s input (the notion that it takes a community to raise a child was as absent as the parents themselves), I couldn’t help wondering how Sarah and Tommy would fare as adults without stable parent figures – especially Sarah.
The Vale Girl does a fantastic job depicting the small town atmosphere in which everyone knows everyone … but not everything. It’s a clever debut that’s multi-layered and tightly written for the most part (the only thing I queried was the ending, which didn’t quite fit for me). I’m looking forward to more from McDonald and I’d recommend this for anyone who likes engrossing suspense.
Available from good bookstores and Pan Macmillan Australia. This copy was courtesy of Pan Macmillan.
Bookish treat: A boiled sweet – suck it until you can’t bear the suspense any more and bite … or do what I do and bite it straight away for a satisfying crunch!