Jacqueline Roy’s The Gosling Girl is an incredibly emotive novel, dealing with the repercussions of a devastating crime in which a young girl murdered another child. But instead of focusing on the actual crime in all its haunting, awful detail, the story centres around the psychological nature of such a terrible act – the societal and systemic failings that could have driven a child to do such a thing and whether a person can ever find absolution.
Michelle Cameron was only a child herself when she lured a younger child away from her home and to her death. She is known as the black girl who murdered a white girl; the face associated with true evil. Having done her time, Michelle is released from incarceration. Now an adult, she has a new identity to help her start again and rebuild her life. And for a short while, that’s what she does. She keeps her head down, finds a menial but satisfying job that allows her to buy small things that give her joy. She unofficially adopts a stray dog and allows herself a glimmer of hope that she might be able to make friends. But when another shocking death occurs, Michelle finds herself in the frame for murder once again.
Apprehended in front of her colleagues at work and questioned by the police, Michelle’s new life is over before it really began. It’s only a matter of time before the press discover who she is and where she lives, forcing her to move and assume yet another identity – one that feels even more alien. Natalie Tyler is the officer brought in to investigate the latest murder. A black detective constable, she knows what it’s like to be ostracised, misjudged and racially profiled. Assigned to Michelle’s case, Tyler is torn between professionalism and the inherent need she feels to protect someone vulnerable that the rest of the world has already written off.
It’s impossible to read a novel like The Gosling Girl and not feel a constant warring of complex, conflicting emotions. After all, the basis for the story is a child killing another child. If you take away the reasons why the murder happened, the purely human response is complete abhorrence. But as the story slowly unfolds and Michelle’s memories from childhood – which she’s tried so hard to bury – resurface, you begin to understand the things that shaped and damaged her young mind. She never really had a chance and that, too, is heart breaking.
Through Michelle’s story, Jacqueline Roy delves into racism and how race and class intersect. One of the most important questions at the heart of the novel is how can someone fight back against a system that controls the narrative? Michelle’s crime is reprehensible but she’s also a victim, both as a child and as an adult, and yet that doesn’t ever seem to be taken into account. Roy’s writing is powerful, unflinching, empathetic and, above all, thought provoking, never shying away from the darker, uncomfortable realities of our society. It’s not an easy read – and it shouldn’t be – but it feels like an essential book for our times too.
The Gosling Girl is published by Simon & Schuster on 20 January 2022