Content warning: This book and my review of it contain mentions of r*pe and murder.
I was lucky enough to get my hands on a proof copy of Dead Girls by Abigail Tarttelin before release, but didn’t get a chance to read it until after it was already published. (Woops!) I wish I’d read it sooner; this book is fantastic! I’m not much of a crime fan usually, but the supernatural elements drew me in because I love a good ghost story. Without giving too much away, this book is about the death of Thera Wilde’s best friend Billie and how the 11-year-old Thera copes with it (no points for guessing that she does not cope in a healthy way).
Character & Setting
Two of the most important features a book can have are believable characters and a strong sense of place/setting, and Dead Girls hits the nail on the head for both. Thera’s voice is so strong in the narrative – the way she tells the story completely resonates with the way I used to think/write/speak at that age, in the way that she jumps from one topic to another, recounting the day’s activities all with the same level of significance, whether they’re inconsequential or completely life-changing. A lot of the adults in this book act very strange after Billie’s death, and I think this is partly because we are seeing it from Thera’s perspective, so their behaviour seems completely alien to her, but also because this book highlights the fact that most people don’t know what to do or how to act when someone close to them dies suddenly, let alone a child, and let alone by murder. This book perfectly illustrates that bizarre period of grief where nobody really knows what to do.
Evoking a remote English countryside town, Dead Girls possesses a strong sense of place, but what really struck me is how well Tarttelin captures time. Set in the 90s, this book is full of references, quotes, and slang that reveal when it is set long before a date is ever mentioned, but without being an obnoxious nostalgia-fest – just enough to really transport you back 20 years. My particular favourite is an obscure Buffy the Vampire Slayer reference 😉
If there’s one thing I love in a story, it’s an unreliable narrator. And oh boy, is Thera Wilde an unreliable narrator. She will leave out pretty important details in the narrative because to her, they are inconsequential. She then casually drops these details into the story as and when she deems them relevant, adding weight and extra context to the present action that makes you go, ‘Oh shit’. (SPOILER: My favourite example of this is when she’s walking for miles and you don’t find out until she reaches her destination that she has been covered – like, drenched – in blood the entire time. Also the fact that she tried to strangle her neighbour’s cat – she dropped it into the narration so casually!)
Some parts of this book were SUPER uncomfortable to read – especially Thera’s obsession with r*pe and her exploration of what it is, how it works, what it looks like, and how you can ‘die from it’ – but in a horrified/fascinated, can’t-look-away kind of way. I think those really insidious, toxic moments that made me uncomfortable were perhaps some of the most important parts of this book, because that is the reality for so many young girls. For whatever reason, they are exposed to difficult events and situations, and as adults it’s hard for us to watch them navigate these painful ideas when they should be levelling up their Nano Pets. This book is a tragic tale of being forced to grow up too soon, and children facing realities that are difficult even for most adults. The writing, especially towards the end, is full of anger – for all the childhoods cut short, for all the women and girls (and men and boys) who are hurt and killed for the pleasure of others.
Ultimately, this book is a feminist challenge of the trope of the defenceless little girl in crime fiction. While of course there are girls in this story who were hurt and killed, Thera is angry, driven, dangerous, and wild. She rejects the expectations that are placed on her (by any living people, at least) and follows the path that she believes is right. While many of her actions are legally and morally objectionable, her dedication to female friendship and absolute freedom from social expectations is a breath of fresh air in a genre that is full of angry men and dead girls.
Get your copy of Dead Girls here!