The Girl Below by Bianca Zander

A quick rundown… Suki drifts back to London to find that everything has changed since she’s been gone. Memories come flooding back as she meets her former neighbours…

Strengths: Very absorbing with Gothic touches.

Weaknesses: The clues are slow to reveal

Why I read it: Sent to me by Bloomsbury Sydney – thank you!

Pages: 313

Published: 2013

Publisher: Alma Books / Bloomsbury

Setting: London, New Zealand and Greece

Rating: 8.5 out of 10

The Girl Below is an intriguing book that picks you up and takes you away from the moment you look at the cover. It’s all absorbing; from the moment I pondered what the girl on the cover could be locked in (or out of) to the point where I’ve finished the book and writing the review. Bianca Zander should be commended on an impressive book that really pulls you in, twisting and turning genres and settings to a gripping conclusion.

The novel’s protagonist is Suki, who returns to London after leaving shortly after her mother’s death. She’s lived in New Zealand (such a rare setting – more please!) for the last ten years, somewhat aimlessly. She thinks that she can return to London and pick up a purposeful life again. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. Her friends have moved on – they’re now serious, with jobs and boyfriends – and Suki falls into drifting again from share flats to people’s couches. She returns to her old flat and visits her old neighbour, Peggy. This causes two things to happen – for Peggy to rekindle her relationship with Peggy’s daughter, Pippa, and her family and to reignite memories of a wild party from her youth. Suki is still terrified of the bomb shelter in the backyard (where she was trapped during this party) and moving in with Peggy fuels her fears. Why is this scene so important to Suki?

Zander makes this novel change from finding oneself to having us question Suki’s mind and motives. Is she all she seems? As Suki’s memories become stronger and scarier, Gothic elements start to shine through until I wasn’t really sure what was real and what was fantasy. The ending pulls it together and whether you agree with the rationale or not, you have to admit that it is powerfully done. Zander creates a sense of atmosphere that is broody, close and almost another character.

Speaking of characters, I found Pippa’s son, Caleb a great character. As a teenager, he’s not scared to get to the point rather bluntly nor push his limits. He’s the antithesis to Suki, who skirts around things and is a powerful force in helping her to confront her memories. Peggy is also wonderfully eccentric with her flat full of costumes and strangely heavy fur coat. Pippa, who we first meet as a devil may care teenager, is wonderfully juxtaposed as the modern day worrying mum – what happened to the carefree girl? Her character shows us the passage of time and how it changes us, whether we like it or not.

A wonderfully atmospheric book debut (so much so that I didn’t want to read the last section at night!)


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