Release Date: June 19, 2012
Publisher: William Morrow
Genre: Contemporary Fiction
Rating: 3.5 out of 5
Book Summary: Suki Piper is a stranger in her hometown. . . .
After ten years in New Zealand, Suki returns to London, to a city that won’t let her in. However, a chance visit with Peggy—an old family friend who still lives in the building where she grew up—convinces Suki that there is a way to reconnect with the life she left behind a decade earlier. But the more involved she becomes with Peggy’s dysfunctional family, including Peggy’s wayward sixteen-year-old grandson, the more Suki finds herself mysteriously slipping back in time—to the night of a party her parents threw in their garden more than twenty years ago, when something happened in an old, long-unused air-raid shelter. . . .
A breathtaking whirlwind of mystery, transgression, and self-discovery, Bianca Zander’s The Girl Below is a haunting tale of secrets, human frailty, and dark memory that heralds the arrival of an extraordinary new literary talent.
My Thoughts: Suki Piper is almost 30-years old and has just arrived back in London, where she grew up, when we first meet the narrator of The Girl Below. She was living in New Zealand when she decides to return to her childhood home. But Suki‘s decision to come home is bereft of plans for her life in London. She fled to New Zealand in a similar fashion years ago following a traumatic event. Suki is lost, confused and floundering in life, unsure of who she is and unsure of what to do with herself.
In this riveting debut, we revisit Suki’s life with her as she discovers what has caused her to feel so lost and confused and what she can do about it. Bianca Zander successfully portrays Suki’s life from the age of six until her arrival in London in a series of fascinating, detailed flashbacks. The chapters on Suki’s early life are interspersed with chapters of Suki today providing a very detailed and informed picture of this flawed and unhappy woman. I was quickly absorbed into this captivating story as I discovered the difficulties Suki had faced in life that had so damaged her.
Suki, upon arriving in London, is drawn to the building where she lived with her parents as a child. She discovers that Peggy, who lived in an upstairs apartment with her children Pippa and Harold, teenagers when Suki was 6, is still living there. Peggy is quite elderly now and ill but as feisty and nutty as ever. As soon as she steps foot in Peggy’s apartment, Suki is thrown into the past and assailed by thoughts and memories she's tried to ignore for years. An atmosphere of suspense and mystery flows lightly through these early pages, teasing us. Peggy’s paranoid and Suki’s a little freaked out so we wonder if it’s just an old apartment building and Suki's memories from childhood or if there’s more to the mystery and suspense.
Suki shares two significant and over-lapping events from her childhood in the beginning of the book. One is something naughty she did, as a child, that she’s felt intensely guily about since and the other is the one big party her parents threw the summer Suki was 6 or 7. A frightening incident happened to Suki that night. There was an old air-raid shelter in the backyard garden shared by the residents of the building. Suki’s drunken parents and some of their guests decided to open the hatch and check out the shelter. The adults are having a laugh but Suki's a petrified child. Something happens to Suki in the air-raid shelter that night that stays with her. Since then, Suki’s been plagued by disturbing thoughts and nightmares which intensify on her return to London. Suki allows her fear and misery to impact everything that’s happened in her life and, as she gets older, to paralyze her moving forward in life.
Suki is fortunate in that there are some people she reconnects with in London who try to help her. These people acknowledge that life has been rough for Suki but, at some point, you have to shake it off and grow up. Peggy and, especially her daughter, Pippa, are two people who become important to Suki as she figures out her past. Through them Suki will confront the thoughts and nightmares that haunt her and, hopefully heal. In the midst of figuring herself out, Suki tries to unravel the mystery of the air raid shelter and what really happened that night in order to stop her nightmares and bring an end to her confusion and fear over the past. I'm not a big fan of fantasy and the supernatural but I found the passages about Suki's dreams and nightmares fascinating and beautifully written. Ms. Zander does an amazing job creating a vision of Suki's garden from childhood that I coud easily imagine and making it both dream-like but also creepy.
Pippa and Peggy need Suki's help almost as much as she needs theirs which helps Suki alleviate some of the awkwardness she feels living in Pippa's house. Suki has a lot of issues and is terrible at relating to people. She's almost totally lacking in social graces. She tried my patience, often and was quite aggravating at times. She makes so many terrible decisions and relies on the wrong people to help her that I sometimes wondered if it was possible for her to heal Fortunately, most of the time Suki comes to her senses before total disaster strikes. Suki finally understands the necessity of sharing some of her thoughts and concerns with other people. Although I wasn't always impressed with the people she chose to open up to, simply opening up and talking helped Suki.
Ms Zander writes in a compelling style with easy-to-read, often witty, dialogue and a mesmerizing storyline. There are several humorous moments in the story which help to cut some of the tension. The story is sad and despairing, intriguing and suspenseful as well as amusing and fun. Ms. Zander doesn’t allow the story to get bogged down in heavy, intense emotion but keeps the story flowing well from one page to the next.
My one complaint is I wanted some of the other characters to be more developed. Suki is a complex, three-dimensional character many readers will be able to identify with in part. I found myself completely captivated by her and rooting for her to figure things out. I wanted to know more about Pippa and Peggy and Harold. They’re only developed as much as necessary to suit Suki’s story. I was hoping to learn more about the eccentric Pippa who was once so easy-going and carefree and now, as a married woman and mother is intense and stressed-out. She seems to have little in common with her husband Harold who exists on the fringes of the story. Still, Ms. Zander has written and engaging debut novel with Suki, a main character and narrator I won’t soon forget! I recommed this book and look forward to Ms. Zander’s furture writngs.
See Bianca Zander’s Facebook page and Twitter
Thank you to TLC Book Tours for the opportunity to read and review The Girl Below and to William Morrow for a copy of this book.