Review - THE LOST GIRLS, Wendy James

Review Written By
Karen Chisholm

Wendy James has once more taken a close up, and uncomfortable look at the reality of family secrets. Something that she's not only specialising in, she's particularly good at into the bargain.

We're programmed to think that the family unit is safe, staid, even boring (perhaps because the alternative is too confrontational). Certainly for most, it's not necessarily dangerous and most definitely not devious. But in James' hands, somehow the respectable, the normal, the supportive twists and turns into everything that's wrong, and frequently sinister.

Even knowing the tricks of this author's trade, THE LOST GIRLS is just as disconcerting as earlier books. Probably because the scenario here is so easy to identify with. A young family, summer holidays, in a Sydney beach-side suburb. The teenage son Mick, and his younger sister Jane, and Angie, the interloper - the slightly older female cousin. The girl that both siblings adored, and wanted to spend time with. The young girl on the verge of her teenage years, that years later, a sister and her brother remember slightly differently. Certainly differently to the memories of others in, and around the family.

All the more disconcerting as it's set in 1978, a timeframe that's not unfamiliar to many readers of these sorts of books. The sort of summer holidays that many of us will identify all too clearly with. Except that most of haven't had to deal with the murder of our cousin. When Angie is found, strangled, her death, the suspicion, the blaming makes the life of this family implode. Even more so because Mick and Jane's dad is a cop himself. He knows only too well the reality of the search, the details of Angie's death. But the pressure is removed when a second death occurs, months later in King's Cross - in similar enough circumstances to make everyone think a serial killer is on the loose.

In 2010, Jane is happily married and their daughter is a live-wire. Her life seems pretty settled, even though she is closing down the shop that she took over from her grandfather. Her father, the cop, lives in a nursing home now with an odd form of dementia. Her brother Mick had also joined the police force, but was now suffering from PTSD, living with his mother again, divorced and drinking heavily.

On the one hand, a pretty normal family. Tension between children and aging, increasingly dependent parents. The obvious illness of Mick versus the seeming normality of Jane's life. A life that she's mostly content with, but unsettled at the same time. It might be the closing of the shop, but there's something that's making Jane question a lot.

Into this slightly off-kilter world walks a radio producer who is doing a documentary on the aftermath of murder on the families. As Jane, her mother Barbara and Mick eventually agree to talk to Erin Fury, it's more than just an opportunity to reflect on the aftermath, their conversations start to slowly reveal the circumstances of Angie's death.

The genie is, from then on, firmly out of the bottle and not going back until some hard, painful truths are aired. And Erin is not above a few secrets of her own.

It has to be admitted, there were points where a few elements of the plot seemed to be screaming aspects of the ultimate outcome. But THE LOST GIRLS isn't just about who or how, it's about why, and really, like Fury's own documentary purports to be, it's about the aftermath.

It's a pointed reminder that the aftermath of these events reverberate long after the press have moved on, the investigation has been boxed away, and a resolution achieved, or not, as is so often the case. The character portrayals in this book are really strong. The damage that radiates out from Angie's death is multi-generational and searing. There's guilt, regret, sadness, wonder and fear. There's love lost and childhood relationships that are so strong, and yet so fragile. There's the lies, and the half-truths, and the cruelty of some secrets. And there's heaps of doubt and personal recrimination into the bargain.

As hard as a book like THE LOST GIRLS is to read with such a chilling and claustrophobic feel, skewering that world that some of us feel safe within, it's a fabulous book. (Perhaps avoid the epilogue though - particularly if, like this reader, "happy ever after, despite the shovel loads of strife earlier on" makes you feel slightly bilious).

Year of Publication

Curl Curl, Sydney, January 1978.

Angie's a looker. Or she's going to be. She's only fourteen, but already, heads turn wherever she goes. Male heads, mainly . . .

Jane worships her older cousin Angie. She spends her summer vying for Angie's attention. Then Angie is murdered. Jane and her family are shattered. They withdraw into themselves, casting a veil of silence over Angie's death.

Thirty years later, a journalist arrives with questions about the tragic event. Jane is relieved to finally talk about her adored cousin. And so is her family. But whose version of Angie's story – whose version of Angie herself – is the real one? And can past wrongs ever be made right?

The shocking truth of Angie's last days will force Jane to question everything she once believed. Because nothing – not the past or even the present – is as she once imagined.

Review Review - THE LOST GIRLS, Wendy James
Karen Chisholm
Saturday, May 3, 2014
Blog CR - The Lost Girls, Wendy James
Karen Chisholm
Monday, March 3, 2014

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