‘Dead Girls’ by Abigail Tarttelin

When her best friend Billie is found murdered, eleven-year-old Thera – fearless and forthright – considers it her duty to find the killer. 
Aided by a Ouija board, Billie’s ghost, and the spirits of four other dead girls, she’s determined to succeed. The trouble with Thera, though, is that she doesn’t always know when to stop – and sometimes there’s a fine line between doing the right thing and doing something very, very bad indeed.

I was fortunate enough to receive an advance copy of this, and it is definitely a book to recommend. I was rather stunned to get comment on my Goodreads feedback from the author, and can’t resist posting her comment below.

This is a book that really should come with some kind of trigger warning as it explores topics that are hard to read about (sexuality, mental health, paedophilia, rape and murder) and I’d hate for someone to pick this up without some fore-knowledge of the content. However, it also forces us to confront some of our assumptions about children, sexuality and gender issues in a way that cannot – and really should not – be ignored.

Our narrator, Thera, is eleven when her best friend, Billie, is murdered.
We are placed firmly in Thera’s head and we follow the girls on their last night together as they play in their seemingly idyllic rural home. But Billie never makes it home and we watch as Thera learns of her friend’s disappearance.

For reasons that she reveals as we follow her story, Thera blames herself and comes to believe that she has to avenge her best friend’s murder. The girls have experimented with a ouija board, and Thera has a fierce intelligence that is cultivated by her family but which is feared by her peers (though they can’t articulate it). When Thera becomes convinced that dead girls are talking to her and Billie’s spirit is guiding her to find the murderer, it’s hard to decide the extent to which we trust this narrator.

This is a character that is firmly straddling the adult and child worlds: with a wide vocabulary and very adult turn of phrase one moment, and then very innocent and naive the next. While I think this is deliberate, and it forces us to consider how we treat children of this age and the way they are influenced by events around them, it occasionally grates. Like many adult readers will probably be, I was not entirely comfortable hearing the characters’ views on sex and sexuality (though I found it realistically presented). However, I do think that the novel raises some crucial issues surrounding how we talk to our children about how they present themselves and the potential harm we may be doing to our children in trying to shield them from some of the less pleasant aspects of life.

There was a rather confusing element to the story that does become clear towards the end, but I was stunned by the direction in which this went. Dark, utterly gripping and very very scary.

In response to my feedback on Goodreads, Tarttelin posted: I was so pleased to see an early reader “getting” where I was going…Although I appreciate it can be tough reading, I wanted to try talking about this!

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