Crime Scene: CATH FERLA Ghost Girls. Reviewed by Karen Chisholm
The combination of plot, character and setting in Ghost Girls is perfectly balanced, and the delivery is pitched elegantly to provide insight into the depths of the depravity of the crimes, without making even the most sensitive reader turn away:
He knew he’d arrived because of the crowds. A couple of police officers were doing their best to prevent a bottleneck but people still stood six deep. The general public’s thirst for horror both shocked and excited him. Perhaps his associates were right, perhaps there was a market for something harder than vanilla sex.
Part of the elegance is achieved through a well-crafted protagonist in Sophie Sandilands. With her mixed ethnic background she is able to step into both the world of the English-language schools and the day-to-day life of Chinatown with authenticity. Her father’s background as a private investigator also helps explain some of the inherent ‘nosiness’ that progresses her from teacher to investigator so seamlessly. Her friends, housemate, everything about her life, provide her with a logical reason to be in the right place, to know the right people, to understand the clues when they appear. She’s also able to fly under the radar: not obviously from the community. Her ability to understand the people around her is hidden behind her mixed-race persona. As she says when talking to one of her students: ‘My mother came from Hong Kong … But people don’t usually guess.’
She’s also elegantly human. Doubting, twitchy, aware of the precarious position in which she is placing herself, she’s slightly on edge. She’s got a perfectly reasonable explanation for why she’s so sensitive about the question of missing people, and all of these elements are laid out in front of the reader gently, as the narrative proceeds, never lecturing or telling – always showing:
Thorny pain tore through Sophie, engulfing her as it so often did in the moment when she let her guard down and allowed herself to think of David. She would never forgive herself.
Ghost Girls is not a novel to read when you’re even slightly peckish and certainly not if you’re a long way away from a Chinatown of your own. The descriptions of food and the smells and tastes are alluring and potentially distracting, which makes the strength of the story-telling here particularly impressive. As desirable as a bowl of steaming, wonderful noodles or dumplings may be, it’s equally possible to be pulled so deep into the action that you can, just, resist the food cravings and stay in the story.
The plot benefits hugely from a sensitive touch when it comes to the fate of the ‘ghost girls’ – young foreign students working to support their studies, drawn into the shadowy world of illegal brothels, sex clubs and porn films. Not all these girls are doing this voluntarily, and as the depths to which the world sinks are revealed, there are enough hints and clues for the reader to come to terms with how awful this fate is without having to be beaten over the head and shoulders with the details.
The viewpoint of the Anglo father and husband addicted to the types of porn that this world is producing is a particularly illuminating element within the story – all too often it’s a viewpoint not explored, and yet it’s the reason for so much of this crime and abuse:
Justin’s childhood had been one of shy slinking away from things: first from his father’s hand and then from his mother’s sweet, fermenting alcoholic breath. At school he had hidden from the bullies with his head down and shoulders scrunched together. He’d walked along walls and slid around corners, spent lunchtimes in graffitied library carrels and free periods locked in toilet cubicles. There, in the light, quiet space of the toilet, with only the drip of the urinal and the occasional hiss of a student taking a piss to disturb him, he’d taught himself to release.
Ghost Girls may have an interesting, and cleverly crafted protagonist in Sophie Sandilands at its heart, but she’s ably supported by a strong cast of characters – on the good and evil sides. She’s also aptly surrounded by the ‘ghosts’ of a series of victims, all of whom remain central to this story of vicious exploitation and cruelty. Add that to the strong sense of place and lifestyle, culture and tradition, and Ghost Girls is a remarkable debut indeed.
Cath Ferla Ghost Girls Echo 2016 PB 280pp $29.99
Karen Chisholm blogs from http://www.austcrimefiction.org, where she posts book reviews well as author biographies.
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