The Broken Girls / Simone St James
New York: Berkley Books, c2018.
I just finished this new novel by Simone St James; I had to read it in two parts, since I put it down the first night when it was just getting too scary for bedtime reading, at least for me!
I've read all of her novels, and always anticipate the arrival of a new one. This one is different from the previous five -- it's the same atmospheric writing, but mixes the expected Gothic ghost story with a contemporary police drama. It works really, really well. I think this may be the book that introduces her to a wider reading public. It's fascinating, tightly plotted, features a heroine who doesn't do stupid things to advance the story, has great characters in both timelines, and it just doesn't want you to look away.
Set in Vermont, at Idlewild Hall, a boarding school for so-called troubled girls, it jumps between 1950 and a group of four roommates, and 2014, when journalist Fiona Sheridan finds out the long derelict school is being restored.
Fiona is fixated on the school in her own right; twenty years before, her older sister was found murdered, left on the deserted school playing fields. She can't let it go, and has started following old leads and investigating the now under-construction site. It's complicated by the fact that her new boyfriend Jamie, a younger man, is also on the local police force and doesn't feel comfortable with her digging up dirt about his father and grandfather's investigations into old cases, even her own family's case.
Meanwhile we get to know the four girls in 1950: Sonia, CeCe, Roberta and Katie, all sent to Idlewild for varied reasons that they eventually disclose to one another. The traumas in their pasts haunt them -- literally. There is a legend that Mary Hand has always haunted the school, and in their turns, all of Idlewild's students see or hear her. She knows what your innermost terror is, and when you see her, that's what she shows you or says to you. It's a truly terrifying moment when Katie encounters Mary Hand when locked into solitary detention. But beyond the ghost, the girls are tied to the future by their own cold case, when one of them goes missing.
St James is able to portray the ghost story almost prosaically -- it feels like something you might hear of in real life, those whispered stories of ghostly encounters. It feels like this is a real experience which nobody wants but nobody really questions either. The ghost story carries forward into Fiona's own life as well, and plays a large part in the conclusion of both storylines. The mixture of journalistic investigation, police work, and ghostly revelation is perfectly blended.
The story all makes sense, both plot-wise and emotionally. I found it a breath-holding, nail-biting read, one in which I couldn't see what was coming next. It's a change for St. James, being set in Vermont and in a contemporary time frame rather than the 20s England I've come to associate with her books. But if you are looking for a compelling and suspenseful boarding school/murder mystery/ghost story, this is most definitely it.
For more spooky school stories, I'd suggest Marika Cobbold's Drowning Rose, another story of a group of schoolgirls with a secret in their past, or Carol Goodman's The Lake of Dead Languages for added convoluted relationships.