The Broken Girls by Simone St. James is a Canadian supernatural mystery crime fiction novel that I received as a part of my March Book of the Month bundle. It came to me right as I fell into a mystery/thriller reading crave. I was sceptical about its quality and whether it would turn out to be a good book or not, mostly because I have not had much luck with this genre in the past. Nevertheless, I enjoyed it so much that I feel it may even become one of my best books for 2018!
The story begins in 1950s Vermont at a creepy boarding house for “troubled” young ladies, called Idlewild Hall that is also believed to be haunted. While living here, four roommates develop a powerful friendship when they bond over their mutual familial dysfunction and trauma. Then one evening, one of the girls vanishes, believed to be a runaway by the school’s staff. Then we pop into 2014 where we meet a 30-something journalist named Fiona, who still struggles with her sister’s murder. Even though her sister died twenty years ago, and a suspect was apprehended and convicted, certain aspects about the case never felt quite right for Fiona. After a creepy encounter one evening, she wakes up the next day to learn that a wealthy new owner is renovating the abandoned boarding house. As the renovations begin, a disturbing discovery will shock a small town and lead to revealing truths that Fiona never could have thought possible.
People told me this book was very good and I did not really believe them until I sat down and began reading it. The writing style is very basic with a straightforward prose making the book easy to fall into at once. Within the first twenty pages, I was hypnotised by Idlewild’s eerie setting and Fiona’s emotional turmoil. Everything also unfolds with such a comfortable and satisfying pace; nothing felt incessantly rushed or unnecessarily slow. This comfortable rhythm creates a cosy reading aura that allowed me to read for hours without realising that time was passing by.
One of the main reasons that The Broken Girls was so all-encompassing was the spectacular balance between tension, suspense, and mystery. The tension begins on page one and alternates very well between tight and loose depending on whatever is occurring. The suspense kicks in so naturally that I could not even tell I was at the edge of my seat until that plot twist rose to smack me in the face, which is further complemented by the mystery of Idlewild Hall and Fiona’s sister’s murder. These components when stitched together built a fantastic creepy-crawly ambiance that fit the plot almost perfectly.
The two altering time periods—1950 and 2014—are wonderfully matched regarding plot contribution, maintaining that air of perplexity, in creating anticipation and curiosity, and working as parallels for themes involving anti-feminist mindsets and small-town social hierarchy structures. One era never overshadows the other with either page-time or story logistics. They were equivalent halves in an overall picture that left me feeling quite astonished and imaginatively gratified.
The plot twists themselves were unforeseen and made me very suspicious of many people, making it difficult for me to pin down the ultimate motives and culprits behind everything that is happening. While it did frustrate me at times, I also greatly appreciated the unpredictability. Not being able to figure out what the hell was happening, let alone the why, created a satisfying thriller experience without any of the intense emotional investments that are associated with the thriller genre; there was no evocation of stressful anxiety. The anxiety brewed was genuine and instinctive yet superlative.
The only shortcoming that I found with the novel was the how it lacked in atmosphere. Regardless of formulating that great balance of tension, mystery, and suspense that I mentioned earlier, there was a distinct lack of a menacing aura despite building upon a strong macabre motif that detracts from the fright factor of the story collectively and it was the only quality I felt was missing.
If you are someone who likes mysteries and/or crime fiction with supernatural elements that is not dripping with pretentious vocabulary and overtly complex concepts, then I highly recommend The Broken Girls. While it is modest and candid, it is excellently written and tells a story about some unique girls that is fulfilling and complete. You will not get scared shitless, but you will definitely get the chills and thrills that goes with a good ghost story.