My Oxford Year

My Oxford YearTimeless lessons on love and life learned in a timeless city (Oxford, England, present-day): A big shout out to My Oxford Year. It’s everything you want in feel-good, romantic fiction. I’m shouting having just given up on a stretch of dark, rambling novels, cheerful this one shines bright and crisp.

Due in part to an uplifting premise: idealistic, brainy, red-headed Julia Roberts-like, twenty-five-year-old “Ella from Ohio” seizes her “Once-in-a-Lifetime Experience” to study at Oxford (Victorian literature; Victorian poetry introduces each chapter) on a Rhodes scholarship, vowing a year of “pushing boundaries, and exploring new things.” Largely, though, because Julia Whalen knows her way around words.

While this is Whalen’s debut as a novelist, she’s no stranger to words. A screenwriter asked to rewrite the words for the screenplay Oxford by Allison Burnett, which inspired this novel, she’s also been tuned to expressing words as an actress and as a narrator of a bestselling list of audiobooks like Kristan Hannah’s newest The Great Alone and Gone Girls. Now it’s her turn to craft “words that hold clues.”

Ella Durran, despite all her best laid game plans, has fallen for a man with a secret: strikingly handsome Jamie Davenport known for breaking hearts. They meet under the worst circumstances, swiftly set up in a series of cinematic scenes. No surprise that a movie is in the works.

Ella arrives in Oxford disoriented and exhausted. On her way to a fish and chip restaurant, she’s nearly run over by Jamie driving a snazzy, Aston-Martin silver convertible with a blond passenger. Soon there’s an incident in said restaurant that causes a commotion when Jamie accidentally crashes into Ella whose carrying her meal with a sampler of messy sauces, resulting in Ella barking “you posh prat.” Next we find Ella seated in her first class stunned that Jamie’s filling in for the legendary English literature professor she’d hung her dreams on.

You’ll laugh and smile page after page at Ella and Jamie’s cut-to-the chase, witty, teasing repartee, full of sexual innuendo. Their off-to-a-terrible-start relationship contrasts with an eccentric trio of lovable friends she instantly hits it off with: Charlie, her dormmate at Magdalen College, one of Oxford’s thirty-eight architectural marvels, with a flair for the overly dramatic and a passion for literature that matches hers; classmate Maggie with pink hair; and their mutual friend Tom, an ex “linguistics, philology, and phonetics” Oxonian Maggie has a crush on but he’s so absent-minded she can’t even get to first base. These fun “Three Musketeers” are with Ella from beginning to end, teaching her the cultural ropes, watching her back.

Oxford University's Beautiful Colleges

We get to know this wacky cast of characters through sharp, erudite, comical dialogue that also conveys interesting tidbits about Oxford’s history, historic sites and hangouts. The novel’s cover is a charming rendition of its famed Bridge of Sighs and Thames River rowing tradition. Later, Jamie’s upper crust parents enter the picture, adding more colorful characters and the aristocratic side.

Oxford Bridge of Sighs
By Brian Jeffery Beggerly [CC BY 2.0]
via Wikimedia Commons

The author’s prose feels real and emotional for another reason. She has deep personal ties to Oxford, explained in an illuminating essay, the kind of About the Book guide you wish all novels included. In a unique study abroad program, Julia Whalen spent her junior year immersed in Oxford, where she “survived the culture shock” and “loved it as fiercely as you can love something that doesn’t love you back.” She’s also a Rhodes finalist and, like Ella, deeply affected by the loss of her father. But she makes it clear this is Ella’s story not hers.

The author labels My Oxford Year a “romantic dramedy.” A term that nicely sums up it feels more lighthearted than it actually is. Ella’s no shrinking violet and her friends are amusingly over-the-top. yet when she discovers Jamie’s secret your heartstrings will be tugged until you find yourself crying. All in all, you’ll come away joyful for an irresistible read lovingly depicting the City of Dreaming Spires. Ella, who narrates, sees Oxford as a “novel come to life.” Similarly, the novelist evokes Oxford as “history with a pulse.”

By SirMetal [Public domain]
from Wikimedia Commons

Ella may not be worldly (England is the first time she’s stepped outside of the US), but she’s clearly more than book smart to have successfully navigated DC politics, the world Ella has come from. A set-up that provides a fundamental conflict in this touching love story for she bears a precise expiration date. Her career is on the rise.

The novel opens just as she approaches the British customs official. Not the ideal time to receive a call from the newly departed White House chief of staff offering her a plume Washington job as education consultant for another rising star, a junior senator and widowed mother of three running for President. A quick thinker in spite of her jet-lagged condition, she finagles a deal to consult from Oxford for the year, which, of course, means romantic entanglements are seriously compromised and she’s on call 24/7. She juggles and manages that intrusive feat like a pro.

Not the case with Jamie who poses an existential threat to her “Oxford destiny” perhaps predictably, but you’ll relish the seduction so who cares. When Jamie gazes at her with his soulful blue eyes, she’s like “a boat caught in a current.” Beyond the physical seduction, she comes to understand how much deeper he is than that. If she wasn’t so rocked and stewed about his taking over the class of her professorial heroine, she might have gleaned Jamie’s poetic qualities simply by the nature of his poetry assignment. Jamie is all about feelings:

“To truly experience a poem, he mutters almost to himself, you need to feel it. A poem is alive, it has a voice. It is a person. Who are they? Why are they?”

Jamie’s lessons are about love and life and how far you’re willing to go for what really matters, if you can even figure out that profound question, dig really deep, and then come to grips with and act on that truth. “If you don’t open yourself up,” Jamie says, “how can you be surprised by life? And if you’re not surprised, what’s the bloody point?” Jamie’s definition of pushing those boundaries wasn’t quite what Ella had in mind.

Whalen describes Jamie’s mesmerizing eyes in a writing style that beautifully shows rather than tells. They are, Ella realizes:

“the color of this swimming hole I used to spend summers at as a kid, at the end of a trail, at the base of a waterfall. The color was so magical I was convinced if I could hold my breath long enough, swim deep enough, pump my legs hard enough, I’d discover the bottom wasn’t a bottom at all, but a portal to another world.”

So too can be said about My Oxford Year. Magical, it takes us to another world. To an ancient city that “belongs to everyone.” Delivering a universal message that speaks truth to us all.


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Winter Sisters 2

Dedicated to “girls and women everywhere” – Profiles in courage and compassion for the ages (Albany, New York; March to June 1879): Eight years ago, we came to know Robin Oliveira’s indomitable Mary Sutter, a civil war nurse who lifted our spirits in the face of medical horrors and prejudice against female doctoring. For all Oliveira’s fans (I’m one of them) clamoring for a sequel: Mary is back!

This time she’s waging a different kind of war, perhaps “more sinister than the brutality of artillery.” Fought on several fronts, this war is more intractable and less visible, defying a repressive old guard class system and heinous behaviors.

A war that calls for Mary to return to continue to fight for the rights of women, young and old, from all walks of life. A war that threatens to risk her reputation. Now a physician for the past twelve years, yet still fighting negative attitudes toward women in the profession as she ministers to marginalized women hospitals refuse to treat: prostitutes. This Mary’s primary fight though revolves around two innocent girls unprotected by a horrendously backward legal system.

Winter Sisters is layered and entangled. It also links to the emotional abuse of high-society women married to powerful men who treat them like servants or worse. Wealthy yet impoverished, a “life without agency” anathema to Mary.

A tall order! Though Mary is up to the task, she’s not the only champion. Others are also women, with one shining exception: a charming, young gentlemen. They are the brightness in this tale of darkness.

The novel’s setting and historical timeframe are key to the plotting and richness of the prose. Winter Sisters takes place in Albany over 112 days (you’ll see why that number matters) in 1879. In 1888, Albany and the entire East Coast were dealt a monster blizzard, known as the Great Blizzard or the Great White Hurricane of 1888. Albany received something like 45 inches of snow. Hundreds of people perished, like the parents of the titular two winter sisters.

In the opening sentence, we’re told Emma and Claire O’Donnell have vanished. For six torturous weeks and plenty of suspense no one has seen or heard from the “blizzard girls” as they infamously came to be known. They are presumed dead.

“The mystery of their whereabouts had become a question of sport, debated with passion in every tavern, prayer circle, factory, horsecar, railroad depot, restaurant, brewery, shop, and home.”

The author once called Albany home. It shows. Her regard for it’s fierce weather, stately Victorian architecture, and the impact of the Hudson River and Erie Canal on commerce and livelihoods is richly depicted.

The trade featured in the plot relying on navigable waterways is the lumber business. Gerritt Van der Meer is a lumber baron. His shy wife Viola is the dejected, lonely socialite. Their son, Jakob, twenty-one, is the gentleman of honor mentioned above. Gerritt is a selfish, condescending brute to Viola, whom Jakob is devoted to. A Harvard lawyer who gave in to his overbearing father’s familial demands to help run the business, which comes at great professional and personal sacrifice when he falls smitten with beautiful Elizabeth, Mary’s seventeen-year-old niece, a violin prodigy.

The beauty of music as a soothing, healing antidote to the sordid story (the author doesn’t flinch, again, in describing hard-to-stomach medical details; she was a critical care nurse) involving the two sisters. “Beauty and horror always met side by side.”

Oliveira chose a year after the real historical blizzard to set her third historical novel (I Always Loved You is a gorgeous tale about the passionate artist Mary Cassatt) because of a law on the books she discovered (impressive research her brand) that screamed out for Mary’s mettle. For her “perseverance and courage and dedication.”

That law is key to Emma and Claire’s story, something readers must find out about for themselves. Sorry to be cryptic, but you wouldn’t want me to spoil the mystery. You’ll learn what happens to them soon enough, about a hundred pages in at the end of Book One. Given this is a 400 page novel, Oliveira’s longest, and you have two more parts to go, clearly it’s not a straightforward mystery. The novelist’s imagination doesn’t work that way.

In this atmospheric historical timepiece, she immerses us in a “city of graft,” corrupt not only in its business dealings but in the morality of its conduct regarding girls and women.

Prostitution was big business in those bygone days. One, Darlene, whom Mary tends to at her frowned upon clinic, will tug at your heart for she does good here.

Other do-gooders include some characters reintroduced from My Name is Mary Sutter. Yes, this is a stand-alone novel. Even if you read the author’s award-winning debut, that was years ago. Mary is indelible but, like me, you may need some reminding about the others.

Mary is now forty and married twelve years to William Stipps, the elder civil war surgeon who can’t “breathe” without her. After all Mary went through during that war, we shouldn’t be surprised she’s “silvered.” William is an orthopedic surgeon, which makes sense after all the amputations he and Mary performed on the battlefield.

Also back is Mary’s mother Amelia, a midwife who “can make anyone feel at home,” and briefly Bonnie, Amelia’s close friend – the deceased mother of the blizzard girls. Elizabeth still lives with Mary and her mother for she’s orphaned too, reeling from the “sadness of losing everything she loved.” The “Sutter women bore up at all times,” whereas Elizabeth represents the fragility of an artist painfully unsure of herself. When the girls go missing, she flees with Amelia from Paris where she was studying at the Paris Conservatory of Music.

Deaths from war and childbirth – and now merciless weather – created “convoluted” relationships, people caring for one another as if they were family rather than looser connections and friendships. That’s the situation here. So when ten-year-old Emma and seven-year-old Claire disappear Mary, William, Amelia, and Elizabeth all go searching as if the girls were their own flesh and blood.

One of the joys in this somber story is Mary and William’s marriage. “Neither of them could think of a time together when either of them let each other down.” They don’t let us down either as they fight for justice and equality.

All of Robin Oliveira’s novels stand out for their strong feminist messaging. Winter Sisters feels like crystal-ball timing: the 19th century converging into the Me Too Movement.

Also on display and timely is the wicked “power of money” that “brought loyalty where none was deserved. It bent minds and curated behavior. It solved problems.” Greed, bribery, and betrayal also begets egregious crimes, whether a century ago or unfolding today.

Albany’s weather also wreaks havoc. After the blizzard came, mighty floods – termed freshets – that overwhelm the city, once the snow melts. The Hudson is a river of ice – floes, another meteorological term I hadn’t known. Albany is a city of bells that ring out flood warnings, though it seems nothing could stop the tragedy that ensues.

Tom Brokaw, the veteran journalist, recently predicted the 21st century will be remembered as the century of the woman. Thus, a 19th century novel makes a hard-hitting contribution to a 21st century cause.


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Nine Continents: A Memoir In and Out of China

The remarkable journey of an artist (Shitang, Wenling, Beijing, China to London; 1970s – 2016): Starving is the first word that comes to mind reflecting on the vitality and accomplishments of an artist growing up under the Communist regime of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution and its aftermath. For it seems Xiaolu Guo has been starving much of her life. Starved for food, family, freedoms, affection, love, individuality, dignity.

Calling herself a “peasant warrior,” Guo poignantly traces in vignettes of memories her forty years living under abominable conditions. Her perseverance, blossoming, eloquence, and the productivity and diversity of her works is all the more remarkable given the unrelenting cycle of abuse she endured – sexual, physical, emotional, intellectual. A life she says that didn’t even start until she was twenty-one, when she penned her first novel. Even when the memoirist left China for London at thirty, she describes her next ten years as a “cultural orphan.”

“Westerners will never understand the Chinese unless they go through the misery and poverty we did,” says Guo, whose hunger for Western literature and Western films sustained her when “desolation came and swallowed me.”

Named one of the Best Young British Novelists in 2013, Guo is part of what’s called the “Sixth Generation” of Chinese filmmakers, who came after the tragic events at Tiananmen Square in Beijing 1989. Drawn to the angry young artists of her generation who went underground to pursue their art since the State censored or jailed those who did not conform to it’s endorsement of art: propaganda. There can a time, though, when the writer-filmmaker recognized the only route for artistic freedom and creativity was to leave China, the homeland that shaped and traumatized her.

That trauma is what makes her art profoundly essential to her being. Recipient of numerous awards for her novels, films, poetry, short stories, and screenplays – a body of work considered autobiographical, speaking to themes echoing an impoverished, unhappy life marked by “ice-cold loneliness.” The artist recalls “one of the happiest moments in my life” at six, when she met art students who painted out the bleakness into something magical. Other good things you can pinpoint: a couple of breaks that led to her artistic development, though she earned those with feverish dedication amidst fierce competition, and bonding with her biological father, whom she first met at fourteen.

Also stunning is Guo wrote her memoir before the Me Too Movement. The China she writes of – in the seventies, eighties, and nineties – chillingly devalued women. Her parents gave her away (because they had a son? her father was imprisoned in a labor camp?, she’ll never really know) to a couple who lived in a mountain village raising yams and goats. Severely malnourished, they then gave her away to her grandparents who lived in an isolated “typhoon drenched” fishing village, Shitang, surrounded by the East China Sea – “always brown, churning the refuse and rubbish the villagers dumped in it every day.” By age two, she’d been orphaned twice.

Her grandmother, “the most humble person I have ever known,” was subjected to feudal Chinese customs: illiterate, with her feet tightly bound causing her great difficulty walking, her body bent over. Her grandfather was a “bitter, failed fisherman” after his boat was seized under the 1970 Fish Farming Collective, eventually committing suicide. He repeatedly beat her “voiceless” and “nameless” grandmother, who derived strength praying to the Goddess of Mercy, who “bestowed her compassion on all those grief-stricken wives and unlucky daughters.”

Guan Yin, “Goddess of Mercy”
By Haa900 [Public domain]
via Wikimedia Commons

Nine Continents opens with an epilogue as Guo is now forty, having just given birth to a baby girl in London. Motherhood cannot be an easy feat for a woman who first met her biological mother in adolescence, leaving behind her grandmother to attend school in her parents’ compound in Wenling. A mother with a “heart of stone” who ignored and beat her.

Even more disturbing is physical violence on girls and women was apparently the norm in rural China in the seventies. “Where I grew up, every man beats his wife and children.” So too she depicts of the raping of girls. “No wonder Chinese ghost stories know only weeping women looking for justice in the afterlife.”

The author’s benevolent father brightened days when home. A painter for the State yet his artistic soul was tied to the sea, having also grown up in Shitang. People did what they had to do to survive; Guo hungered for more.

Wenling was a different type of village. “This was the China of the early eighties: town and nature, with no real separation of the two.” Rice patties, bamboo trees, residential compounds, and factories (shoes, plastic, silk) all together. “Every adult belonged to a work unit, run by the state.”

Wenling is where filmmaking took root as Guo gathered around a lone television in the compound watching glamorous American and British life. Here is also where she began writing “misty poetry” – “historically free” poems about the “land, the cloud-covered mountains, the foggy sea, ethereal love.”

The memoirist’s father influenced her environmentalism aesthetically and because of the devastating impact of China’s pollution, as he lost his ability to speak due to throat cancer; so many factory workers she knew were also cancer victims. “China has recorded the highest number of deaths due to pollution;” today, the country is working on solutions to this crisis.

Literature offered salvation, comfort, inspiration. Walt Whitman’s “you must travel it [the road] by yourself” was a message that stuck. American and French writers, poets, and film directors are paid tribute throughout.

Around twenty, the author earned one of eleven coveted spots at the Film and Literature Department of the Beijing Film Academy. Dorm life was still regimented like a “military camp” but at long last the author makes a friend, Mengmeng, her roommate, with whom the two open up about their sexual abuse “in the darkness of the girls’ dormitory.” Film school lasted six years, more years of barely sleeping and striving, working intensely by candlelight.

The opportunity to study films didn’t turn out the way the filmmaker hoped for. “In China, creativity meant compromise.” So she applied and won a Chevening scholarship to study documentary filmmaking at Britain’s National Film and Television School in London, where new challenges arose.

Learning English when your native language is visual imagery, coping with the dreary weather, and still very disaffected and terribly lonely, she found London a “hard place to love.” Now writing in English, she “wasn’t sure which was better; being read by thousands in the West but still feeling misunderstood, or being read by very few in a country that understood me perfectly.”

Xiaolu Guo may have felt anonymous for a good deal of her life but when one of her art films was screened at the Museum of Modern Art in New York “with a full house and then toured hundreds of thousands of international film festivals,” she’d clearly become someone known.

Chinese traditions, sacred writings, superstitions, and folklore appear throughout the telling. The memoir begins with excerpts from one of China’s most beloved pieces of classical literature, Journey to the West. This Taoist and Buddhist legend written in the 16th century introduces each of the five parts of the memoir. While I don’t purport to fully understand the spiritual message, the Monkey King’s struggles seem to foretell Guo’s.

Yet for all the “deadness at the centre of my emotional life,” Xiaolu Guo has written a life-affirming book. A timeless and universal plea cherishing human rights for all.


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Where The Wild Cherries Grow

Chasing a fifty-year-old disappearance from the coast of England to the coast of France (1969/1919): British novelist Laura Madeleine’s historical novel of love and loss in the aftermath of WWI reads like a mystery with one of the most satisfying, pulling-it-all-together, endings I can recall.

Madeleine, a former cake baker-turned-novelist, who debuted with The Confectioner’s Tale, blends her culinary skills into tasty prose, using the complex flavors of food to symbolize a story that’s part sweet, bitter, rich, and earthy. Cooking and eating express emptiness, yearning, comfort, happiness, love, family, community, celebration.

To illustrate how the author reveals the intimacy of a romance, the center of this mysterious tale, through the language of food here’s how she describes a special cake:

“It started sweet, tasting of cream and honey, of walking in the afternoon with the one person you could share the colour of the sky with. It became the fields, a grove in late summer, warm aniseed and olive oil and ripening nuts and days spent harvesting, saving for the winter. Finally, it fell into the warm sting of liquor, like a candle flame flickering far into the night, where no words were needed and time itself dissolved in touch of skin on skin.”

“It was love, and it could not be hidden.”

That’s the appetizing prose you’re in store for. Except, the novel didn’t start out with tenderness and joy. For a long time it’s not an idyllic story despite the idyllic cover, southern France byline conjuring nostalgic loveliness, and a sensual prologue.

In fact, Part I takes place in England – in a grittier London suburb, at a stuffy London solicitor’s office, and in the marshy landscape of Norfolk County known as the Fens or Fenland.

Strumpshaw Fen, Norfolk, England
By LittleHow (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

If it weren’t for the French tip-off I’d have avoided mentioning it altogether not to spoil one iota of this page-turning mystery:

What happened to a nineteen-year-old young woman named Emeline Vane who disappeared fifty years ago in 1919, a year after WWI ended?

Instead, I’d have limited the telling to Bill Perch, a wet-behind-the ears London solicitor about the same age Emeline vanished. His big break comes when he’s assigned her case. His “first real client” is Emeline’s aunt. He’s to prove Emeline is deceased to sell off the Vane’s abandoned property, entangled in British inheritance laws.

Emeline’s story begins when Bill discovers her diary. It starts a year after she’s lost her two older brothers to the war and six weeks since her mother died, the cause a broken heart as much as anything else. Emeline’s elegant voice is full of sorrow.

We’re not the only ones who hear her grief-stricken voice. Bill hears her “whispering in my ear,” tugging at him for his assignment means abandoning her.

The Great War took an enormous toll on Emeline and her once “filled to the seams” family’s country estate – Hallerton House. Its “proximity to the sea and rail” emphasizes the important role railways played in “knitting the country together.” Really two countries for the English residence and a French seaside village are both at the “end of the line.”

Bill isn’t wealthy like this new generation of Vanes or the old ones before the war, but as we get to know this bumbling, good-natured guy, we see he has something far more valuable than money: instinct and principles. Although he seeks the pride of becoming a respected professional, when he stumbles on Emeline’s diary and hears her sad, longing voice he risks it all to search for her. Thus, going against what his future depends on: the improbable hope he can somehow prove Emeline is still alive so she can claim her legacy. He has nothing to go on but his gut.

Something, actually many things, about Emeline’s ghost touches Bill, whose last name is emblematic of his spirit: perched and ready to fly. He is, after all, coming-of-age in the swinging sixties though not like the hippies he meets along the way. Taken in by the private words of a sensitive child who left “bits of coloured paper or a ribbon” and a “tiny ballerina” for the crows circling her formerly grand home, he sets off for a part of coastal Britain he’s never seen to begin his detective journey.

He finds the stone residence mildewed, decayed, and spooky, yet he also finds he responds to the invigorating “smell of salt and mud,” to the openness of the landscape, so freeing. “I don’t want the life I had before, that there’s something else waiting for me,” Bill suddenly realizes. It’s at this juncture that his search for Emeline becomes Bill’s search for himself too.

As the novel moves back and forth in time and place, we see parallels between Emeline and Bill. At Hallerton, he feels alienated from his city roots, a bit lost and overwhelmed; Emeline in French Catalonia bordering Spain is also far from home, lost and overcome too. Both locales are at the “edge of the world” – one overlooking the North Baltic, the other the Mediterranean, waters “more than blue, it’s the promise of blue, brilliant and glimmering.” Sense of two places is strong.

Cerbère, Pyrénées-Orientales, France
By Jpbazard Jean-Pierre Bazard (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The more Bill reads Emeline’s diary, the more suspenseful the reading becomes because at every turn Bill and the reader have no idea if she’s still alive or not. Nearly everyone thinks she went mad and killed herself back in 1919, maybe threw herself into the sea. No doubt she’d gone mad with grief.

Bill’s path is daunting. He persists for he feels he’s the keeper of Emeline’s secrets. Sharing them, he says, would constitute a “betrayal.” Similarly, unveiling Emeline’s secrets to the reader would betray the reader’s journey. So no spoilers here!

The diary transports Emeline’s soul, and a profound love. We feel the anguish and fullness of her soul and the depth of her desire in metaphorical passages involving food: “We simmer, we roast, we bruise; we squeeze every morsel of flavour from these ingredients, until we have their souls.” And, in another describing a hearty meal: “It is a rich thing, the stomach of the sea, the throat of the mountains, the earth between, bringing them together in an instant of pleasure.”

Stirred throughout are the hauntings of war. “So many things lost and found.” Which circles us back to that powerhouse ending. To long-lost Emeline. Did Bill ever find her?

I recently came across a quote by Henry James, taken from his introduction to the The Aspern Papers. It well-sums up how the reader experiences this poignant novel. As a “palpable imaginable visitable past.”


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Girl Unknown

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.


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