Is she real or a fake?, and the damage she inflicts (Dublin, Ireland; 2016): I’m not a fan of thrillers except psychologically suspenseful, well-written ones involving family relationships – a sub-genre of thrillers that goes by names like “domestic noir”. So well- conceived and ominous as to the emotional terror perpetrated on a marriage, a family, by an evildoer that you cannot put them down. Girl Unknown fits this description like a glove.
Still, up until now, I hadn’t read any of the Girl books – the craze set off by A Girl on the Train and Gone Girl. The closest I’ve come are the psychological domestic thrillers by B.A. Paris, Behind Closed Doors and The Breakdown. What Girl Unknown and Paris’ thrillers have in common is a two-faced villain so perversely clever you find yourself inhaling the pages, amazed at how much damage can be done by one malevolent person within the sanctity of one’s home. The accumulative effect grips us. You know danger is looming, like a train moving full-speed ahead until it inevitably crashes.
That’s the pace of Girl Unknown. It’s why even if you’ve tired of the girls, I think you will not tire of this one.
The plot strikes at your heart because you can imagine the possibility of the set-up, and wonder what you would do if someone dropped earth-shattering news on your doorstep. Other than this middle-class clan lives in a suburban-like community in biking distance to Ireland’s University College Dublin (UCD), they sound like us, could be us. That’s what makes these domestic stories so terrifying.
David and Caroline are in their forties. They’ve been married seventeen years (together twenty). They have two kids, Holly, 11, and Robbie, 15. David is a history professor at the university. He’s studied and teaches there except for a three-year stint to get his doctorate at Queen’s University in Belfast. Caroline is a stay-at-home mom, having given up her career in advertising to raise her kids.
The novel opens at the start of a new school year when the “buoyant life of first-term energy” feels palpable. All that’s gone by the end of chapter one. (Actually, you sensed something was terribly wrong by the cover image and matching prologue.)
The story is set at an important time for Ireland and a history professor. It’s Dublin’s 100th anniversary of the 1916 Proclamation (which refers to the Easter Rising that led to the Republic of Ireland; Northern Ireland still part of the UK). It’s also a pivotal time for David who is seeking a big promotion, and for Caroline who has decided to re-enter the workplace. Thus, David and Caroline are already experiencing nervousness and self-doubt. As for their children, old enough to be left more on their own but kids are vulnerable. Actually, everyone in this family is vulnerable, but they don’t know that yet, nor the extent to which they are.
We’re introduced to the Connollys as a typical family, balancing responsibilities and activities, which include caregiving for David’s declining mother. Until the day one of David’s students – Zoe Harte, 18, who had “a freshness and a simplicity to her appearance that set her apart and made her seem terribly young” – drops by David’s office and springs, “I think you might be my father,” throwing his world off-balance. The set-up, by page 10.
Zoe has a lovely name and David sees something lovely in her but we suspect and then see she’s not a lovely girl. Rather, like an octopus with many arms moving towards its prey, slyly ingratiating herself with David, enabling her many moves, entangling and poisoning this family in too many ways.
Had the marriage not carried it’s own secrets and deceptions Zoe might not have caused as much devastation. Had David not been as “student-focused” perhaps he wouldn’t have felt so protective of her, enabling this unknown into his orbit at the expense of his nuclear family. He has his reasons, but that doesn’t mean he couldn’t have done things differently. Since David and Caroline feel familiar, you may find yourself taking sides feeling annoyed at David, empathizing with Caroline. You may also feel sorry for young Holly, unsure about teenager Ronnie.
We know the train wreck is coming, but it’s not accelerating on a straightforward track. It twists, sometimes not so unexpectedly, then jerks to a dramatic, unexpected finish. A startling denouement that happens more quickly and perniciously than you might assume.
Published in the UK in 2016 by an Irish writing team when all the girl hoopla kicked off, it’s now being released in the US. I wondered about the writing process when it’s two?
The novel is mostly written from David and Caroline’s perspectives. Did the award-winning male author Paul Perry write David’s part? Did award-winning novelist Karen Gillece craft Caroline’s? (Hence the pen name Karen Perry.) Then I came across an article outlining how the two friends actually work: they take turns writing the different characters and after a couple of chapters switch, so the prose feels seamless and each comes up with their own surprises. This is their sixth collaboration. (Not all their books appear to have been published in the US.)
Dublin is the setting. The authors hail from there, this is the center of David’s life, and where Zoe has apparently landed via Belfast. (I say “apparently” because we question everything she says.) Her stories about her mother Linda ring true for David – twenty-years ago they did have an affair when he was in Belfast – but he doesn’t know what to believe since the news Linda was pregnant came out of left field. Or so he says. Thus setting the tone for the overarching theme of Trust. You don’t know whether Zoe is telling the truth, and can’t be sure about the veracity of family members who are not candid and have their own secrets.
David and Caroline have very different views of Zoe. He sees her as “great” and too freely believes she’s his daughter. Caroline, on the other hand, is instantly suspicious of her “cold eyes” and “feline grin.” Caroline perceives her falsehood, lies, belligerence, whereas David is swept under her alluring spell. The children have different reactions to Zoe too.
As readers we get to see Zoe as an opportunist and a chameleon, formulate our own opinion as to whether she is or is not a long-lost daughter, stepdaughter, stepsister. Despite her manipulations and deceptions, it’s not all clear-cut, adding to the dilemma: What to do about Zoe? What’s clear is she’s a troubled girl, but what if she’s your own flesh and blood?
The more accommodating David becomes the more dug in Caroline gets, though their emotions and behaviors sometimes go up and down. Nonetheless, you sense the ride you’re on is not a roller-coaster. This one goes all downhill.
The upside is a warning, like the jolting whistle on the train. Families are more fragile than you think.