REVIEW: Girlhood by Cat Clarke

Cat Clarke’s latest was sold to me as “queer Malory Towers with a dash of Single White Female.” Honestly, they had me at “queer”, but the rest of the pitch is intriguing too – a psychological thriller set at a boarding school? Sign. Me. Up.

Girlhood opens with a midnight feast, and it only gets better from there. Our narrator is Harper, newly rich and living under the shadow of her twin sister’s death. At the exclusive Duncraggan Academy, she has a tight-knit group of pals, including her best friend, roommate Rowan. Boarding school is like a sleepover with your besties every day, and this is their last year together before university and the real world outside the Academy’s walls. It’s shaping up to be a year to remember even before the new girl, Kirsty, joins the group. Harper and Kirsty have so much in common, naturally they become fast friends – but this new addition to the group threatens to throw off the whole dynamic, and Harper soon finds herself having to make unexpected choices, with the formerly solid bonds of friendship looking ever more fragile…

I read this book in one sitting. It’s as intense a page-turner as anything I’ve ever read, with the emotional stakes deeply compelling. It’s also intensely unsettling. Clarke digs deep into the relationships between these girls to create a psychological thriller where the worst thing that can happen is for them not to be friends any more. For any teenager, friendship is vital social currency, but in boarding school, it’s your whole life. Imagine eating every meal, sitting in every class, even sharing a bedroom with the same person every day. Now imagine what it’s like when that person isn’t talking to you any more. The claustrophobic setting is skilfully evoked, and although Harper isn’t blameless, the way disagreements escalate into feuds when you are living in each other’s pockets made me positively vibrate with sympathy for her.

The relationship between Harper and Rowan is one of my favourite things in the book. Rowan is a great best friend: she’s funny, loyal, and cares a lot about dental hygiene. Like Harper, she’s queer (she began QueerSoc at Duncraggan!) and although it’s refreshing to see two queer characters who are just friends, if there aren’t dozens of Harper/Rowan fics on the internet soon, I will be disappointed. Their relationship is so supportive, it makes it all the more disorienting when it is threatened with being taken away. Along with these sharply drawn relationships, there is a background story about Harper’s twin, Jenna, and her death resulting from an eating disorder. This serious subject is navigated sensitively by the author, but it’s wrenching to see how the disease has shattered the family, and particularly Harper’s struggle with survivor’s guilt. It’s worth remembering that Harper has always been one of a pair: after Jenna there’s Rowan, and when Kirsty comes along it’s second nature for Harper to seek the other half of her whole, intensifying the already acute nature of teenage girl friendship.

Girlhood‘s bright pink cover is scattered with burnt matches. When Kirsty is left in the dark, she doesn’t use a single match, because she has a torch. She doesn’t need to make her own light in the dark: Harper has given her light. In the face of Harper’s indifference, Kirsty is desperate to rekindle their friendship, and so she tries until something catches. But in the closed environment of boarding school, rumours and lies spread faster than a forest fire, and Harper soon finds herself in danger of suffocation.

At the end – when the fires have burnt down – the girls rise from the ashes. Despite the darkness of grief and deceit, it’s ultimately a hopeful book. It’s a coming of age story that reminds you healing is slow and difficult, but possible. Love helps, love hopes, and there is nothing like the love between teenage girls. Girlhood: complicated. Girlhood: highly recommended!

I need to read Cat Clarke’s (gorgeously rejacketed) back catalogue immediately. Any recommendations, anyone?

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