When her schizophrenic husband is committed after burning down the family home, Clare moves into a flat with her young daughters, Grace and Pip. Although the flat is cramped, it has one redeeming feature, it overlooks a large communal garden which seems to beat with its own life-force. Eventually, Pip and Grace are welcomed into the group of children who play there, meeting their eclectic families, but their arrival upsets the carefully maintained balance.
As the tension escalates, Pip’s close relationship with her sister is severely tested when Grace begins to spend more time with the Howes children and develops a crush on their father, Leo. When Pip learns Leo may have been involved in the mysterious death of a young girl thirty years earlier, she becomes increasingly suspicious of his intentions and matters become more serious when Grace is attacked on her thirteenth birthday. As the police investigate, old secrets are exposed and everyone begins to suspect each other to the point of paranoia.
The Girls is a complex psychological thriller which examines the evolving interactions between a particular group of characters and how a simple change can threaten the stability of relationships. The arrival of Pip and Grace is the catalyst which changes the dynamic amongst the children who have grown up in the garden and the subsequent ripple effect is fascinating to watch as old friendships are broken down and replaced with new ones. Since most of the children are on the threshold or just beyond puberty, the emotions evoked are quite dark with jealousy being one of the most predominant. As a result, the interactions between some of the children seem quite sinister, a feeling which is highlighted by the somewhat primal nature of the garden. The descriptions of the garden are a tour de force in this book as the whole place seems so alive with preternatural energy which just emphasises everything that happens there.
Since the book begins with Pip discovering her injured sister and then reverts back in time to their arrival, we are immediately wary of a number of characters. I think this is a real touch of genius from Jewell, because although it makes us suspicious, it also succeeds in making us doubt those very same suspicions when a character behaves in an honourable way. This is never more evident in the character of Leo as we initially see him through the eyes of his wife, Adele, and he appears nothing more than a loving man who acts as a father figure to his children’s various friends. However, our perceptions are then flipped on their head when Pip begins to question the appropriateness of how Leo touches the girls and his actions are suddenly tainted. As Leo becomes the prime suspect after Grace’s attack, Adele begins to question everything he does until she doesn’t know what to believe anymore.
Jewell manages to portray the various personalities and age groups believably, and while there is a lot of focus on the young teenagers, this is definitely not aimed at the young adult market as it is a lot darker in tone. Much of the story is told by twelve-year-old Pip who initially appears quite childlike through the letters she writes to her father, however as the family becomes more embroiled in the lives of the other residents, Pip fails to form the same sort of attachments as her sister and proves to be far more perceptive. The Howes family, headed by Adele and Leo, are equally as fascinating with their three quirky home-schooled daughters and their thrift store mentality. The family seem to be very content with their choice of lifestyle, however the arrival of Leo’s lecherous father and the attack on Grace begins to expose the fine cracks running below the surface. Eventually, Adele will be forced into the uncomfortable realisation that she doesn’t really know her husband or her children as well as she thought she did.
I really enjoyed this book and I loved how the author kept you guessing throughout as to what really happened to Grace. Just as it seems you are getting a handle on everything, the rug is pulled from under your feet and you are back to square one. I also loved the portrayal of the garden in all its supernatural glory as it just made even the most innocent thing look sinister.