The Girl Who Lived by Christopher Greyson

I don’t know how many of you do this but I generally pay scant attention to the ads that appear when I boot up my Kindle – I mean, I scan them quickly, take in the title of the book, author and the shoutline, but never take any of it seriously enough to purchase. They’re a consumer distraction – a necessary one for the pleasure and convenience of my Kindle. For some reason, I made an exception with the ad for The Girl Who Lived. I don’t think it was the “girl” in the title (I am wearying of those), but something about the whole title that resonated. I downloaded it before I could change my mind and began reading. Well, I couldn’t stop – not until I finished it at some ungodly hour of the morning.

This book tells the story of Faith Winters who, in her early twenties is an alcoholic with a criminal record released from a care facility and into strict probation. She has one chance to make it in the community or she’s back in a facility for good. Picked up by her mother, Faith is taken to a small flat that’s been given to her by her parent and loathed step-father. Ungrateful, skitchy, Faith isn’t easy to like. Wanting to be left alone with her memories, it’s not long before the reader learns just how terrible and destructive those are.

Dark and horrifying doesn’t begin to describe what Faith bore witness to on the eve of her thirteenth birthday some ten years earlier. The only witness to brutal murders, murders attributed to someone she loved dearly, she’s not believed when she contests police findings. As a consequence, she starts to think maybe she was wrong and so spirals into a life of psychiatric care, drugs, and alcohol as memories of blood, fear, terror and self-doubt overwhelm her. All this is exacerbated by her mother, a therapist who, as a part of her own recovery is advised to write down her feelings on what happened. The result is not her own story, but that of her daughter’s trauma, a book called The Girl Who Lived.

The book and her memories haunt Faith and all of this is made worse on her release back into the community where she grew up. But when she believes she sees the man she thinks is the killer, and someone starts playing mind games with her, no-one believes her. Not helping her own case, she continues to drink and abuse prescription drugs, defying her probation rules and shedding self-doubt on what her heart is telling her is the truth – or is it?

Dark, utterly suspenseful, the reader is taken into a maze by an unreliable, oft-drunk and prickly narrator who, nonetheless, you end up championing. The other characters who hover around Faith are so well-crafted that, like Faith, you don’t know who you can trust. While I guessed the ending, it is still so well executed, and entirely plausible, it’s breath-taking and shocking all at once.

A sensational read that had me searching for more books by Greyson. This may have been the first of his I read, it certainly won’t be the last! I think I might pay more attention to those ads in the future as well…

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The Butterfly Garden by Dot Hutchinson

This downright original book was recommended to me by a beloved friend who, when I asked her to describe it, struggled to find the words. In fact, she kept using contradictory language and that had me intrigued. Not only because someone who I admire for her use of language found it hard to put this novel into words, but also because those that she chose were binary opposites: beautiful/ugly; horrific/marvellous etc.

29981261Basically, the novel focuses on a young woman named Maya who is rescued from what’s clearly a protracted and shocking abusive environment by the FBI. From the outset, the reader is plunged into the first of many interviews between two agents, Victor Hanoverian and Brandon Eddison and the frank and bold survivor of this abuse, Maya.

Kidnapped years earlier, Maya is one of many young women who find themselves trapped in what’s, aesthetically at least, a paradisial garden. Fed, clothed and cared for by a man they call “The Gardener”, the girls are given new names and tattooed with elaborate butterflies before being raped. From that point on, they’re expected to be at the brutal but also charming and considerate (in his eyes) man’s beck and call and that of his vicious son, Avery.

The story of the continued abuse and the relationships that develop between the girls unfolds slowly throughout the interviews with the agents as does Maya’s background.

While the tale itself is utterly awful, the writing – and the way Maya tells it to the FBI agents and the way her history and that of the other girls, as well as the awful fates some meet – is tragically lyrical, sometimes humorous and even, as odd and distasteful as it sounds, lovely. Not what The Gardener or his son do to the girls, but how they manage it – how Maya copes and the strategies she and the other butterflies put in place to simply survive and not be broken by the circumstances they find themselves in – even when they know the only way to escape the heavenly hell they find themselves in is to die.

Some of the girls have fallen victim to Stockholm Syndrome; most, however, rely on each other for fortitude and friendship and that deep bond that arises through sharing tragedy and when hope is but a distant dream. It is this – the close attachments formed between the girls, the ways they use memories to sustain themselves and willingly adopt the identities given to protect their “real” selves that is both powerful, incredibly moving and beautiful.

I have never read a book quite like this and it’s hard to put down. I know it will haunt me for days. It has twists and turns, and operates much like a psychological thriller, but it’s also expressive and literary. I once described J.K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy as the most wonderful book about the most awful people I have ever read. I think The Butterfly Farm is similar in that it is a mesmerising book that manages to be both poetic and dreamlike when it covers a subject (and introduces characters) that is the stuff of nightmares.

My friend was right to struggle to describe this book, and to use contrary words when she did. It is a contradiction, a powerful one that works so well and is very original. Four and half stars.

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The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

BOOK Book Reviews 11514819042I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from this novel as it entered the literary world with both a great deal of hype as well as comparisons to the hugely successful book, Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn.

I am delighted to say, this was a terrific read. Sharing more in common with Flynn’s work than the use of “girl” in lieu of “woman”in the title, such as the notion of unreliable narrator/s, it’s an original, dark and compelling story told from three female points of view. The primary narrator is Rachel, the “girl” on the train who, when travelling to and from her work daydreams about an apparently loving couple she sees for a few seconds each time the train pauses on its journey and who happen to live a few doors down from her old house. Inventing a life and even names for them, she invests heavily in her imaginary scenario so much so, one day, when she sees something that doesn’t accord with her imagined view of their world, she is distressed. When she discovers the young woman she has named “Jess” is missing, she is compelled to uncover the truth of what she thinks she saw and what it might mean.

Things, however, are a little more complicated than a blurring of the lines between fact and fantasy, or adhering to the adage “seeing is believing”. It just so happens Rachel was in the area the night the woman, whose real name is Megan, goes missing. Rachel knows something terrible has happened and she may have borne witness to events. The only problem is, Rachel is an alcoholic who has “blackouts” and cannot recall what occurred or even if anything did…But she has snatches of memory… snippets of images and very strong feelings that she cannot dismiss. Do they mean something or is it the drink playing tricks?

The other two narrators are Rachel’s ex-husband’s new wife, the young mother, Anna, who lives a few doors down from the missing Megan (who is the third narrator), and in the same house Rachel used to dwell in and which represented such promise and happiness, until her marriage unravelled.

The three women’s stories and, indeed, version of events, are all interwoven with Rachel’s painful and desperate need to recall, interfere and discover what is true, what is not, and overcome her battle with the bottle and the demons of her past being dominant.

I don’t want to give away too much about this plot because it is clever. There were times I thought, how on earth is Hawkins going to pull this off? There is no way I am going to be able to suspend my disbelief regarding this…. But I did. The reader does, and that’s because the flawed and oft-times pathetic and frustrating narrators of this macabre tale are as believable and human as are the stupid, reckless and tragic decisions they make and the lives of those they draw into their stories and actions.

Light on police procedural (which is where I struggled a bit with some of the actions and behaviour of characters), this is far more a psychological thriller that plumes the depths of perception, of memory, of how we construct our lives, make excuses, accord blame, and reinvent ourselves in an effort to erase the past and shore up a future. It’s how the same people can view an identical event in completely different ways and react accordingly.

It is also about manipulation, violence – emotional, psychological and physical – betrayal (of ourselves as well) and the impact this has on others.

Once I started this tale, I could not put it down and felt quite wrung out at the end. Like the train Rachel rides, you hop on board and find yourself hurtling towards a destination that even if you see it coming, the arrival is daunting and haunting.

A great and unexpected novel containing beautiful prose and some genuinely marvellous reflections on people and life, featuring weak and real characters embroiled in events that will chill and thrill, this is a cracker of a read.

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