Abigail Tarttelin’s Dead Girls isn’t the only book dedicated to murdered and missing girls that I’ve read over the last couple of months, but it is one of the most visceral and hard-hitting. According to UNICEF, an adolescent girl dies a violent death every ten minutes. It’s a staggering statistic that gives this novel greater weight and significance.
When her best friend Billie goes missing, eleven-year-old Thera Wilde watches as her neighbourhood and the police search their small town. She knows Billie better than anyone and she’s determined to find her, dead or alive. So when she discovers Billie’s lifeless body in their hidden hiding place, Thera believes it’s her duty to catch the killer. With the help of a Ouija book and automatic writing, Thera calls out to her dead friend and the spirits of five murdered girls appear – first as black dogs, then as their living forms, and Billie is one of them.
An eleven-year-old playing at detective was never going to end well and, fuelled by the link she has to the dead girls, Thera is hell-bent on getting justice for them all. She has difficulty listening to authority figures but she does listen to the whispers about Billie, what her parents and friends have heard on the news about how she was killed. She hears the word ‘pervert’ and suddenly, in her mind, all boys have the potential to be evil, and all men are murderers and rapists. Thera is too young to rationalise that not all men are evil, and she’s suspicious of every male figure around her, including her father and a local boy she befriends, Nathan.
“To be wild is to be brave, and sometimes savage. Right then, I was neither of those things. But I think the terror of finding Billie entered my blood, and it would precipitate everything that followed.”
Unlike many crime novels, it’s impossible to guess what’s going to happen at the end of Dead Girls when you start reading it. The story is a thought-provoking and unflinching murder mystery, with paranormal elements that have far greater consequences than Thera, or indeed the reader, could have imagined. Tarttelin explores what can happen when young and impressionable minds are over-exposed to disturbing imagery and news, but it’s as much about the titular dead girls as it is their unexpected young saviour.
Reading the dead girls’ written accounts of their abductions and assaults is particularly tough going, and you can see how their stories affect Thera as the novel progresses. She loses all sense of what’s right and wrong, not comprehending that justice and the justice system don’t always work in tandem, even though they should and would in a perfect world.
Tarttelin’s writing is stark and brutally visual, making Dead Girls the kind of disturbing novel that leaves you feeling emotionally exhausted by the end. Despite being indicative of how a child might behave when they’ve witnessed something terrible and don’t know how to deal with it, Thera’s dogged attitude does grate at times. It also veers slightly into far-fetched territory towards the very end but there’s a tense, psychological element at play that brings it crashing back to reality.
Books like Dead Girls aren’t easy, light reads but with its blend of murder, mystery and ghostly thrills, it’ll keep you hooked until the unexpected end.
Dead Girls was published by Mantle on 3 May 2018