So before I get to why I’m wowing all over this review, the plot: It’s spring 1999 in a small English countryside village. Eleven year-old Thera and Billie have been best friends (“best, true, forever friends”) since before they were even born. Thera and Billy are imaginative, playful, and clever, and right on the cusp of adolescence. When Thera goes missing and turns up murdered, it is a pivot point in Thera’s life.
The book is told from Thera’s point of view, and as I learned in the author’s previous book Golden Boy (one of my all-time favorite books), she’s really good at writing from the perspectives of children. Thera is also smarter than most kids her age, precocious is probably a good word; Thera’s grandfather (a science fiction author) calls her intellectually curious. And what happens when the best friend of a precocious, intellectually curious child is murdered? And what happens when that child’s parents in a misguided attempt to shield and protect her, tell her almost nothing about what has happened to her friend, and what anyone is doing about it? They want her to carry on like normal, but Thera can’t. Her best, true, forever friend has been killed by a man, a pervert (whatever that means, and she will find out), and nobody is telling her anything. She has endless questions, and she will find out the answers. To top things off, Thera is being haunted by Billie’s ghost, and the ghosts of other dead girls, who she is convinced want her to help them track down their murderer and enact revenge on him, so their spirits can rest.
This is a murder mystery/suspense novel, and has supernatural elements, but the focus is really on Thera’s emotional arc. It’s also a period piece, set in a time just before a girl like Thera would have had easy access to the internet and its resources. The girls are only two years younger than me, so all the references in this book hit home. Thera and Billie both want to marry Leonardo “Leo” DiCaprio because of Titanic; they take a class trip to the cinema to see The Phantom Menace (that made me laugh out loud), and they love S Club 7 and The Spice Girls.
The greyness of this book appeals to me. The book actively undermines the idea of perfect little dead angel girls that proliferate after a tragedy like this, something that erases the girls’ flawed, unique human identities, even as children. Thera keeps the real Billie alive in her mind, the one who was funny and said “poop” a lot, who liked spy games and seances, and who practiced kissing in the woods with a thirteen year old boy. Through Thera’s POV, we get a pretty fresh perspective on bodily autonomy, sexism and misogyny, and the pervasive lack of open communication about sex and violence. Thera is an extreme version of what it’s like to come of age in a world where men (who are everywhere, as Thera realizes) can hurt and kill little girls, and what do you do about that? She learns to protect herself, and that is also taken to an extreme, as she appoints herself the protector of all the dead little girls as well.
I ended up liking the ending, though I can see how it would be controversial. Absent open communication from her parents, teachers and the police, (the common thread between this book and Golden Boy is the way that adults fail at communicating with children; the way they keep secrets, and how that harms rather than protects, in the end). Thera did what she believed was right, and even when SPOILERS she is put on trial for killing the two responsible for Billie’s murder, and sent to prison, she still believes it. If prison is the price she has to pay for that, she’s willing END SPOILERS. I liked the contrast between Thera’s innocence and youth and the way she learns about the tougher things in the world, which turns that innocence and fierce love for her friend into a righteous weapon.
This book seems to have had a harder time finding a publisher; it was published in the UK in May 2018, and in the US in October 2019, but it only has 300+ reviews on Goodreads. I can see how the subject matter might make it a tough sell, but I liked it, and I liked how the way it was written seemed like a deliberate statement.
I would recommend this if you can handle the idea of an eleven year old girl experiencing things most adults never do. I’m glad I read it, and I hope Tarttelin publishes a new book soon. (I may also have to revisit Golden Boy soon because it’s been years since I read it.)