Book Review: The Broken Girls [by Simone St James]

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In my constant search for a good mystery novel to prevent myself from falling into a reading slump, I came across this. It had actually been on my TBR for a while, casually added in a moment of sleep-avoidance scrolling no doubt, and I ended up reading it. In many ways, the premise itself is a solid notch in St James’ favour right from the start; it sets a disturbingly eerie tone for the novel, although it doesn’t always stay on track. The novel as a whole is a good example of the fact that very often, crime and mystery novels show us both what earns society’s normalised condemnation (murder), and also what should earn society’s condemnation, but is instead ignored.

The Broken Girls alternates between narratives in 1950 and 2014 in the small town of Barrons, Vermont. In 1950, four teenage girls, Katie, CeCe, Roberta and Sonia, from four different walks of life, each harbouring their own secrets, find a common friendship within the walls of Idlewild Hall, a conservative, repressive boarding school for ‘problem’ girls. The events that transpire during their stay find echoes years down the line, all the way into 2014, when Fiona Sheridan, daughter of famed journalist Malcolm Sheridan, discovers that the ancient, crumbling Idlewild Hall, a place virtually abandoned by the townsfolk, is being restored. Still unable to overcome the death of her sister Deb, who was murdered at the age of twenty and for reasons unknown was left on the Idlewild property, Fiona, frustrated by the lack of answers, finds herself gradually drawn into the unsavoury history of the boarding school.

As I mentioned earlier, St James is able to begin with a solid idea which really packs quite a punch when it comes to the spooky factor; a haunted boarding school is a good place as any to start for a mystery novel. The novel is well-paced, it doesn’t move too slow or too fast, and you do feel that you’re making some progress as a reader, uncovering elements one by one. St James successfully maintains an atmosphere of mystery in the novel but lets enough slip that the story doesn’t plod. However, I feel that that the even pacing sacrifices some quite integral elements; the novel doesn’t really juggle a lot of components as a novel of mystery. The suspects are few and far between and the solution is not hard-hitting or surprising, but more like a slow, expected revelation. The secrets that the girls of Idlewild Hall are keeping are very interesting, but most of them are irrelevant to the novel’s core function as a mystery.

Numbly she followed his gaze to the dead, empty windows of Idlewild. It was watching them, watching her, laughing with its broken teeth.

For the most part, St James writes engaging, plain prose, and in certain situations is specifically adept at placing the weight of tension accurately in dialogue or in the inner monologue of characters, however at certain points the lines do slip into spelling out predictable clichés or unnecessary melodrama, putting unwarranted pressure on certain aspects of the narrative. There were one or two scenes which read as so typical of a classic mystery novel that I found myself losing patience. It’s not that St James doesn’t have the ability to create and maintain tension but for some reason this comes across without consistence.

Perhaps St James’ greatest accomplishment (at least to me) is not to create a good mystery (I think it’s passable at best) but to slip in a mild social commentary. Although it’s clear that it’s not wholly the focus of the novel, she does her best to give the four girls some personality, to flesh them out, to give credence to their very genuine personal issues, and lastly, to allow them a strong bond of friendship. We saw (perhaps are still seeing) novels which extol the whole ‘teenage girls are dangerous’ vibe and Fiona reflects on this issue herself. I think it’s possibly a conscious effort on the part of St James to attempt an oblique commentary of sorts on the subject, and I appreciate also her efforts at approaching larger themes like war.

A note on the supernatural; a running theme through the novel is the ghost of Mary Hand who haunts Idlewild and its girls. School legend says she was woman whose child is said to be buried in the creepy garden on the Idlewild property. While I don’t mind open-ended novels, I prefer open-endedness to a steady solution which is harder to believe. I think a skeptic might take issue with how the supernatural element plays out in this novel, and I personally found it unsatisfying, and at odds with the novel as a mystery. I should admit that I haven’t read many novels where real life horror and imagined horror coexist, but I can’t say I thought this attempt was very successful, especially since Mary Hand is present throughout the novel as something of a consistent enigma, and I was banking on the fact that there might be a conclusion which would fit in with the other elements of the novel.

I find it hard to settle on the conditions under which someone might like this book. I found it decent, enjoyable, and engaging enough that I would consider reading more by St James. Not entirely a success, but many mysteries are not. I would say if you’re looking for a polished, slick whodunnit, this provides reasonable answers but falls short. Neither is it entirely a novel of social commentary, or entirely a ghost story. If you don’t mind a hybrid, then I’d check this out.

All quotes attributed to the respective work.

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