Shadow Girls by Carol Birch

I’ve had Shadow Girls by Carol Birch calling to me from my TBR for many months so it’s a real pleasure finally to be able to share my review today. My grateful thanks to Kate Appleton at Head of Zeus for inviting me to participate in this blog tour.

Published by Head of Zeus imprint Apollo on 14th April 2022, Shadow Girls is available for purchase through the links here.

Shadow Girls

Combining psychological suspense with elements of the ghost story, Shadow Girls is a literary exploration of girlhood by the Booker Prize-shortlisted author of Jamrach’s Menagerie.

Manchester, 1960s. Sally, a cynical fifteen-year-old schoolgirl, is much too clever for her own good. When partnered with her best friend, Pamela – a mouthy girl who no-one else much likes – Sally finds herself unable to resist the temptation of rebellion. The pair play truant, explore forbidden areas of the old school and – their favourite – torment posh Sylvia Rose, with her pristine uniform and her beautiful voice that wins every singing prize.

One day, Sally ventures (unauthorised, of course) up to the greenhouse on the roof alone. Or at least she thinks she’s alone, until she sees Sylvia on the roof too. Sally hurries downstairs, afraid of Sylvia snitching, but Sylvia appears to be there as well.

Amidst the resurgence of ghost stories and superstition among the girls, a tragedy is about to occur, one that will send Sally further and further down an uncanny rabbit hole…

My Review of Shadow Girls

Sally’s a smart girl at school.

Any reader looking for a visceral, fast paced and twisting plot won’t find it in Shadow Girls. They will, however, find a quiet, menacing malevolence that lurks under the surface creating a tension that inveigles itself into the reader’s mind. I found Shadow Girls beautifully written, atmospheric and very creepy.

What Carol Birch does so well in Shadow Girls is to take the monsters of childhood; the shadowy corners, the echoing school corridors, the unexplained noises that we all know so well, and weave them into a spellbinding narrative that mesmerises, making the reader feel as if they are there in the corner of the room watching Sally as she negotiates the smoke like details just out of the corner of her eye. I loved how the plot built quietly and, except for a couple of dramatic moments, almost prosaically, to its conclusion because it made the events all the more relatable. Add in the hooks of music, especially the discordant or indistinct notes that feel as if they are not quite real and Carol Birch has created a disturbing, compelling narrative. Her writing is exceptional.

The characterisation is so skilful. Sally’s increasing paranoia, her flawed reasoning and her self-justification when her actions are less than kind should make her repugnant. Instead she is a genuine, tangible creation who could be any one of us, making her all the more affecting for the reader. There’s a level of self-destruction and isolation that begins with her trapped in the middle of two sets of twin siblings so that why she is as she is and why she becomes who she becomes is thoroughly understandable. It’s not possible to add more for fear of revealing too much. Pamela and Sylvia too are utterly real so that their lives at school feel completely authentic.

The themes of Shadow Girls are fascinating. There’s an unflinching exposition of girlhood, with its rebellions, petty jealousies, cruelty and vulnerability that fixes the narrative even when other aspects of the story feel supernatural and other-worldly so that Shadow Girls is brilliantly balanced. I loved the fluidity of friendship, of reality, of time and place.

It’s hard to define Shadow Girls and I suspect it may divide opinion among readers. I thoroughly enjoyed it, finding the literary nature of the prose, the psychological mystery and the delving into the darker side of the human psyche all superbly presented.

About Carol Birch

Carol Birch is the award-winning author of twelve novels, including Turn Again Home, which was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize, and Jamrach’s Menagerie, which was a Man Booker Prize finalist and long-listed for the Orange Prize for Fiction and the London Book Award. Born in Manchester she now lives in Lancaster.

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