Crime Scene: WENDY JAMES The Lost Girls. Reviewed by Michelle McLaren
Wendy James’s sixth novel is a thrilling Jack-in-the-box that centres on an unsolved murder from the 1970s and its impact decades later on those left behind.
Is the past something we can ever truly put behind us, or do our old traumas continue to linger over our day-to-day lives? When we think about events that took place more than 30 years ago, running them over in our minds, are we remembering them as they really happened? Where does the truth end and wishful thinking begin? Would you know if someone close to you – your mother, your husband – had been lying to you for decades? And if you found out, would you, could you, ever forgive them?
The Lost Girls will have you asking yourself all these questions … and after reading it, you might find that answering them won’t be as simple as you think.
In the summer of 1978, in idyllic Curl Curl on Sydney’s northern beaches, 14-year-old Angie was murdered; strangled with the scarf she was wearing. Angie was beautiful and popular – especially with the boys down at the local shop, where she would walk with her adoring 12-year-old cousin, Jane, every morning to pick up milk and bread for Jane’s parents. While Jane would reluctantly return home to eat lollies and watch the afternoon movie, Angie would stay and play pinball with the boys. Until one evening when she didn’t come home. Her body was discovered abandoned in nearby bushland a few days later.
All the boys at the corner store, including Jane’s brother, Mick, were questioned relentlessly by the police – until the body of a young homeless girl was discovered in Kings Cross. The police soon realised both murders were the work of a serial killer and shifted the focus of their investigation to the city. The mystery of Angie’s death was never solved.
After Angie’s murder, Jane’s family began to disintegrate. Her father grew more distant; her mother suffered a nervous breakdown, her brother ran away from home for a few weeks. Jane spent years trying desperately to model her appearance and personality on the cousin she idolised.
Now, more than 30 years later, Jane still lives in Curl Curl. She runs her grandfather’s antiques store, she’s happily married, and has a daughter who’s just started TAFE.
When Erin, a radio journalist, contacts Jane hoping to interview her for a story on the long-term effects on the families of murder victims, Jane reluctantly agrees to talk about her memories of Angie.
It’s not long before Jane realises that she’s not the only member of her family who’s been talking with Erin. Her brother’s been interviewed; so has her husband. Even Jane’s mother, who was so adamant that the whole thing remain in the past, has been speaking with her.
With everyone suddenly speaking about Angie after decades of silence, Jane is left feeling more vulnerable than ever. Suddenly, she’s beginning to question her life:
My family is secure, healthy, whole. I’ve been a good mother, a good wife, a good daughter. So why, suddenly, am I feeling as if it’s all been for nothing? Why am I feeling as if I’ve missed something, as if my life has somehow slipped by without me noticing?
Meanwhile, with the whole family preoccupied with digging up the past, no one seems to realise that Erin has an agenda of her own.
Although The Lost Girls centres around Jane, there are also atmospheric sections set in 1978, as well as newspaper articles and transcripts from Erin’s interviews. It’s a technique that James handles with consummate skill, ensuring each chapter flows on to the next with perfect coherence.
Professional and persuasive, Erin manages to encourage her interviewees to open up to her as if she were a psychiatrist, and it’s through her interview transcripts that we see each character’s perspective on Angie’s life and death, and how wildly these differ.
Jane’s mother, for instance, was always oddly suspicious of Angie, describing her as manipulative and cruel. Rob, Jane’s husband, who also grew up in Curl Curl, reveals that Angie was known around town as ‘a bit of a tart’ and admits that he ‘always thought that maybe Angie invited it somehow’.
Gradually, the mysterious Erin reveals more and more about herself. She becomes obsessed with Jane and her family, listening to their interviews on her iPod as she falls asleep at night:
It’s fascinating, listening to their lives spilling out so uninhibitedly. So intemperately. All the stories people manufacture so they can live with themselves. […] So much of it isn’t quite the truth, sometimes conscious lies, but mostly it’s not deliberate dishonesty, they’re just telling half truths, telling the parts they can bear to remember. But occasionally, just occasionally, something honest slips out …
Eventually, readers might start to feel as if these characters are a part of their lives, too. When it comes to creating endearing, vulnerable and, above all, believable characters, James is at her best. It’s almost impossible to resist getting caught up in these characters’ lives – Jane’s sudden longing for something other than her suburban existence; her brother Mick’s slow recovery from mental illness. It’s not just the novel’s suspenseful plot that makes The Lost Girls so compelling. James’s characters have a large part to play.
However, the novel’s final act, an epilogue focusing on two of the novel’s supporting cast, leaves The Lost Girls ending on a strangely discordant note. It’s an odd, perhaps even awkward way to leave these characters we’ve come to care so much about – and an unnecessary shift away from Jane, who acts as the novel’s focal point. It’s one slight misstep in a novel that’s otherwise well-choreographed.
The Lost Girls is the kind of novel that demands to be read in a single, breathless sitting. It’s fast-paced and thrilling; a Jack-in-the-box of a novel that will have you on edge the whole way through, guessing until the very end.
Wendy James The Lost Girls Michael Joseph 2014 PB 280pp $29.99
Michelle McLaren blogs about books, time travel and nice, hot cups of tea at Book to the Future (www.booktothefuture.com.au).
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