Shadow Girl by Liana Liu is an #OwnVoices young adult Chinese novel from the supernatural, mystery genres. It came out fairly recently and when I found it at the library a few weeks ago, I decided to pick it up because the premise sounded interesting to me. However, after reading it, I felt that the book had tons of potential to be an excellent narrative about complex family dynamics and values, which were underdeveloped for the sake of a completely unnecessary spooky twist.
Shadow Girl follows a recent high school graduate named Mei, who after successfully being a camp counsellor decides to earn some extra cash tutoring children. She gets hired on by a wealthy family to tutor their young daughter. The pay is excellent, and Mei will get to spend her summer on Arrow Island, an island with a mysterious history and breathtakingly luxurious homes. Mei jumps on the opportunity, however, after spending a few weeks with the family, she quickly discovers that this family is more bizarre than she ever could have anticipated.
Oh man… This book had some serious potential to become a story about a young woman who is getting ready to embark on a journey towards college. A young, superbly intelligent, and caring woman who must decide between confronting her familial strife to pursue her dreams and staying in her comfortable bubble using her family as an excuse to avoid stepping outside of her comfort zone. That is the girl that I wanted to read about, especially when titbits were given about her tragic history and all of the emotional turmoil that she’s been struggling with for years. It was by far the most compelling part of the entire three-hundred some odd pages.
But that’s not what I experienced.
Mei’s story is overshadowed by her work with an obnoxiously wealthy family that has all of your typical, soap-opera, “rich-people” problems—infidelity, corruption, privileged and self-entitled kids, etc. It detracted from the overall quality of the book, deflated any sort of dimension that Mei had as an individual, and made me feel frustrated and bored for most of my time spent reading it.
We learn rather quickly that Mei was abandoned by her father. Nothing is ever super explicitly stated, but it’s quite easy to infer what led to him leaving the family. The impact of that desertion follows Mei as she grows, completes high school, and then prepares to step outside of her home for the first time. All of walls that she has built around her heart and mind, the lies she tells herself to keep from feeling like she’s no better than her father—and much more—had quickly drawn me into the story and made me feel an attachment to Mei’s character. It even explained why she was so unlikable and mean too, and that made it a bit easier for me to tolerate her unjust attitudes. Toss in some inner conflicts pertaining to her Chinese identity and the racism she has to deal with on top of everything else, it’s a bit difficult not to become invested in her plight. But then she goes to Arrow Island and everything turns into a severely predictable and clichéd trope-infested mess of a narrative.
None of the members of this family are remarkable at all. Hell, I can’t even recall the family’s name at the moment (I had to return my book to the library over the weekend) and I don’t even care enough to look it up. The parents also have a teenage boy in addition to the little girl that Mei is helping. He has his own set of family drama outside of Arrow Island that could have given him more depth as an individual as well. Yet, once again, we get tiny little references to that life, but nothing concrete. I saw this with essentially all of the cast members. I feel like the author did this in an attempt to make the characters more multi-faceted, but in the end, they are all extremely singular and forgettable people.
Then we have the supernatural aspects. Similarly to everything else in this book, it was laughably terrible. There was no point to the supernatural facets other than shock value and the desperate need to add more meat to a stiff and poorly constructed tale about family values. There is no atmosphere or suspense and tension that usually helps or supports such a trope. Whenever these parts popped up, they stuck around for a few pages and then disappeared just as quickly. It felt like the supernatural portions forgot their lines and only piped it when they finally remembered, “Oh yeah! I’m supposed to make this book spookier and more mysterious! Let me say hello really quickly.” Are you kidding me?
This brings me to the finale. Anticlimactic, abrupt, and inconsequential, leaving me standing in a pool of utter disappointment and defeat.
All in all, I tried so much to like this book and wanted to from the bottom of my heart. But it’s shabbily executed and probably needed a whole lot more editing than it received. I strongly believe that with more guidance and serious attention to detail, more fleshing out of the important parts and a removal of all the unnecessary crap, it could have made a marvellous story about a dysfunctional family trying to cope with their fears and insecurities in the wake of abandonment. As it stands, I do not recommend it. There are much better things to read out there.