The Girl Below
By Bianca Zander
Review copy provided by the publisher in conjunction with TLC Book Tours
Publication date: June 19, 2012
Suki Piper is a stranger in her hometown. After ten years in New Zealand, she has returned to London only to find herself more alone than ever before. But a chance visit with Peggy, an old family friend who still lives in the building in which Suki grew up, leads Suki to believe she has discovered a way to reconnect with the life she left ten years before. As she becomes more and more involved with Peggy’s family, Suki finds that she is mysteriously slipping back in time to one night, a party her parents threw in their garden, and an incident that took place in a long-unused air raid shelter there. Set in both Suki’s past and present, The Girl Below is a whirlwind of mystery, intrigue, and self-discovery.
This was a very absorbing read, one that I had a tough time putting down. The story takes place when Suki returns to London after living in New Zealand for a decade, and I immediately got the impression that Suki was struggling with all aspects of her life: friendships, relationships, job prospects, family, etc.
What really drew me in were the early chapters that flashed back to her childhood, to a night involving a party thrown by her parents and to a trip to the air raid shelter in the garden. Her tenuous grasp on these memories gave off an unsettling atmosphere, partly because, as glimpsed through Suki-as-a-child, she doesn’t quite understand all that she sees and hears, and so as a reader, I was filling in blanks and found I couldn’t explain some of the things that Suki remembered. I also found myself questioning the reliability of Suki’s memories, wondering how much faith I could put in the accuracy of these remembered events, and I liked that uncertainty.
I loved the movement between Suki’s past and present, and the way it drew out the story. Present-day Suki bounces around the couches of some old friends before settling in with an old friend’s family: Peggy was Suki’s neighbour in her parents’ old place, and Suki winds up staying with Peggy’s daughter, Pippa.
Pippa is married to Ari and has a son, Caleb. They end up asking Suki to stay and keep an eye on Caleb while taking Peggy to Greece to visit Ari’s family, and partly because she has nowhere else to go, Suki agrees. Pippa hopes that Suki can talk some sense into Caleb, as she senses that they may be similarly troubled.
Things become stranger and stranger, and the supernatural vibe to the story begins to pick up, culminating with Suki and Caleb going off to Greece with Pippa’s brother when they learn that Peggy’s health is even worse than they thought.
I loved the spooky, supernatural atmosphere that built throughout the book, and the descriptions of Greece and Ari’s family home were so vivid and wonderful. I also liked learning about Suki’s past through flashbacks, particularly the chapters that focused on her childhood and on her relationship with her parents.
There were a few things that frustrated me about Suki, like her drinking and drug use, and her strange relationship with Caleb. However, while I didn’t like these some of the things that Suki did, I think they helped to demonstrate how poorly she coped with her feelings of isolation and loneliness. She wasn’t always likeable, but I felt for her and wanted her to find happiness. It’s difficult to like a character who does unlikable things, but I didn’t see Suki as a bad person, and I think that’s a credit to the author that she has written a complex character who I couldn’t help but root for through it all.
I didn’t quite get all the answers I wanted out of this book, but maybe others will be able to read more into things than I was. Overall, I thought this was well-written and entertaining, and I recommend it. I would be interested to read more by Bianca Zander in the future.