Sunday, June 17, 2012

THE GIRL BELOW by Bianca Zander

THE GIRL BELOW is an extraordinary first novel suffused with a creepy surrealism that makes the pages turn themselves. The main character, Suki Piper, is twenty-eight years old when she returns to London after over a decade in New Zealand, where she sought her absent father following her mother's death. There is no magical reunion, but Suki remains there, working and sharing a flat. By the time she returns to London, her roots there have all but dried up, and she crashes, increasingly unwelcome, on an old friend's couch. A visit to her childhood flat folds her into the family of Pippa, her old babysitter, whose ailing mother, Peggy, needs care. Pippa also hopes that Suki will be a good influence on her surly teenaged son, Caleb. Suki has her own demons: surreal experiences that might be hallucinations or might be time travel. She continues to be pulled back into a horrifying time in her childhood involving a debauched party thrown by her parents and a visit to a creepy WWII bunker. She shares these hauntings/visions/time travels with Caleb and is dismayed when they follow her to Greece, where she has joined Pippa at Peggy's deathbed. Zander shifts easily between Suki's childhood, her time in New Zealand, and the present. Suki is a fascinating character, a woman vaguely haunted by her past and unable to grasp her present. Her jobs are meaningless, her friends superficial, her boyfriends hopeless. She stays in New Zealand despite her father's rejection of her, even running errands for him and his new wife just to feel a part of something. Her hard-partying life doesn't fill the void she has felt since that mysterious incident at the age of eight, and she drifts into Pippa's family without really meaning to: Pippa pulls her in and Suki doesn't resist. Pippa's brother, Harold, offers a look at her future: "The thought of ending up like his when I was in my forties, still stewing over what my parents had or hadn't done to me as a child, was dismal, and it struck me that there had to be a cut-off point, where it all stopped being their fault and became my own" (p. 198, uncorrected proof). This is the point of crisis that Suki has reached, and it is not clear at first whether her visits to the past will stop her drifting, heal old wounds, and prevent her ending up like Harold. Zander uses, to great effect, several images from Suki's childhood to evoke dread. Every time the Wendy tent appears, or she hears the scraping of the bunker hatch, is chilling. Even the hot sun in Greece can't dispel the Gothic gloom. Eventually the threads come together to suggest a future for Suki, but be warned: if you like every little thing tied up in a neat bow in the last chapter, you may find the ending unsatisfying. Since the novel deals extensively with the unreliability of memory, I closed the book (which I could not put down and thus read in one sitting) feeling as though Suki's journey had been told in a complete and beautiful way. I highly recommend this novel. Source disclosure: I received an uncorrected proof through LibraryThing's Early Reviewer Program.

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