The Girl In Between by Sarah Carroll // eerie, serious début joins the greyscale of Irish urban fiction

34457237Author(s): Sarah Carroll
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication date: 4th May 2017 (U.K.) / 20th June 2017 (U.S.)
Category: YA
Genre(s): contemporary
Series or standalone?: standalone
Source: I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

In an old, abandoned mill in the heart of Dublin, Sam and her ma take shelter from their memories of life on the streets, and watch the busy world go by. The windows are boarded up and the floorboards are falling in, but for Sam neither of those things matter. It’s The Castle – a place of her own, a place like no other.

But hard as she tries to hold on to her world, things are starting to change. As the men in yellow coats close in on their refuge, and her ma spins further out of control, Sam finds herself seeking friendship in the ghosts of the mill, and questioning who is really there.

The Girl In Between – quite apart from being the latest addition to a seemingly never-ending string of recently published novels with ‘girl’ in the title – is the latest addition to the Irish YA scene. Its main character is technically not a teenager, but the seriousness of its themes will likely ensure a YA shelving in libraries, bookshops and reading lists alike. Set in a ‘Castle’ – an abandoned mill – and surrounded by a moat – really a canal – it explores the border between surviving and living, between love and fixation, between staying invisible and becoming a ghost.

Sam has only ever known what her mother has told her, and she’s been told to keep herself hidden in the Castle. Hidden away from the Authorities, the hi-vis jackets, the coppers and the do-gooders, who are all in on it together, and who will all drag her away into care if they so much as see her. But when it seems that their dilapidated home is under threat, Sam becomes desperate to save it from the Authorities and her mother from her own personal torment. With only Caretaker, the old man who’s slept outside the mill for decades, to answer her questions, she begins to seek out the ghosts the building, but soon starts to wonder exactly what kind of demons haunt the mill and her mother.

The Girl In Between is a relatively short read, written in an economical, idiosyncratic style. It aims more for class and voice than it does for description or elegant turns of phrase. It’s a contemporary only in the sense of implied timeframe and setting, but verges on mystery, a touch of thriller and above all the eerie. It’s not quite lush or risky enough to plunge into magical realism, but there’s a hint of the uncanny throughout. The protagonist’s youthful naivety makes for some unreliable narration, and readers are invited often obliquely to fill in the blanks and gaps in Carroll’s sketching of her life. There’s a dissonance between what Sam understands about the world and the overarching inkling that there’s something more going on. I called the twist quite early on, but I found the writing style jarring and the lack of drive in the plot off-putting. It’s the kind of book where a lot goes unsaid, and even then some key details, like characters’ names, are blink-and-you’ll-miss-it brief.

As is the vogue in Irish YA, this book deals with heavy themes. What I wouldn’t give for a handful more Irish books in the vein of Sara Barnard, Non Pratt or Sarah Dessen – or even just some featuring teenagers who are capable, realistic, messy, even happy. This book’s confrontation of homelessness, neglect, addiction and substance abuse will garner plenty of serious head-nodding and murmurs of approval from adults on the literary scene. Carroll’s début has more in common with Roddy Doyle’s slang-strung, gritty urban fiction than it does with Moira Fowley-Doyle’s heady, surreal The Accident Season or Meg Grehan’s delicate, LGBTQ+ love story The Space Between – both novels which really brought something new and engaging to the table – but if you liked Needlework by Deirdre Sullivan or Taking Flight by Sheena Wilkinson, you may find something to like here.

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The Girl In Between is contemporary-mystery with a touch of the eerie which will leave readers scrambling to unravel the resolution, but the writing style of the book just didn’t work for me. Fans of Deirdre Sullivan, Sheena Wilkinson and Keren David may find it’s more their style.

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Spellbook of the Lost and Found by Moïra Fowley-Doyle // a strangely satisfying second novel

Author: Moïra Fowley-Doyle30079403
Publisher
: Corgi Children’s/PRH
Publication date: 1st June 2017
Category: YA
Genre: magical realism
Series or standalone?: standalone
Source: purchased
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

One stormy Irish summer night, Olive and her best friend, Rose, begin to lose things. It starts with simple items like hairclips and jewellery but soon it’s clear that Rose has lost something much bigger, something she won’t talk about, and Olive thinks her best friend is slipping away.

Then seductive diary pages written by a girl named Laurel begin to appear all over town. And Olive meets three mysterious strangers: Ivy, Hazel, and her twin brother, Rowan, secretly holed up in an abandoned housing estate. The trio are cool and alluring, but they seem lost too. Like Rose, they’re holding tight to painful secrets.

When they discover an ancient spellbook, full of hand-inked charms to conjure back lost things, they realise it might be their chance to set everything right – unless it’s leading them toward secrets that were never meant to be found. 

Beguiling, mysterious and just a little peculiar, Spellbook of the Lost and Found is full of interesting and bewitching things: a town bonfire, missing shoes, a wishing tree, charm bracelets, sprawling tattoos, illicit alcohol, flawed friendships, LGBTQ+ characters and, of course, several dogs named after types of cereal. Penned in what is fast becoming Moira Fowley-Doyle’s trademark style, it’s messy magical realism which walks an audaciously dangerous line between the real and surreal.

Spellbook’s inexplicable happenings are told in alternate narration. Loyal, quick Olive is the most accessible and straightforward, while secretive, tough Hazel works in a pub, trying to outrun her past. Starry-eyed Laurel is being swept away in the whirlwind of an all-consuming friendship with wild, unreliable Ash and dainty, dreamy Holly, turning ominous under the influence of a new forest-dwelling acquaintance. I liked Rowan, Emily and Max, but Ivy was forgettable. Fowley-Doyle pays characteristic attention to toxic and muddled relationships, though the closeness and vibrancy of its family scenes are a pleasant surprise. Olive and Rose are the best of the main cast, while Olive’s father, Daniel – purveyor of puns and daily doses of poetry, like a sort of affectionate, booming Yeatsian alarm clock – is undoubtedly the funniest character in the book.

Atmospheric and rough around the edges, the plot is cleverly woven, with plenty of suspense and scheming to keep the reader engaged. It only wanders off the pace in the second half, but the major twist is terrific – I for one didn’t guess it – and a late resurgence in plot makes for a strong finish. It’s the kind of book you have to read all over again just to put the details together. Fowley-Doyle conjures a world which is richly multifarious, at once recognisable and eerie, modern and uncanny. The titular spellbook is an old, tattered tome of uncertain provenance which is steeped in a blend of earthy enchantments, cultural religiosity and instinctive superstition, but at their best, the most magical elements of the novel spill over into its prose.

Its so-called romances are undeveloped and overly stylised. There’s potential, but the reader can’t help but wonder how much some of the romantically-linked characters actually have in common. Some fairly serious themes are mentioned, including alcoholism, assault and unhealthy relationships, which alongside other content warnings make this one for older teens. Also the drink poitín (described here as a kind of high-alcohol Irish moonshine, and by ‘high alcohol’ we mean likely to cause blindness, hallucinations and/or death) is spelled ‘poteen’ and I really wanted to correct it, though that’s a bit of niche critique.

However, the writing is consistently strong, with moments of striking description (a newspaper ‘flutters like a giant black-and-white-winged bird’, ‘there have always been three of us: a coven, a crowd, a three-headed dog’) and playful humour (‘he looks like a cross between a farmer and a teenage Victorian chimney sweep’). There’s a more satisfying sense of explanation and conclusion than in the otherwise excellent The Accident Season (you can read my review here) but there are still a few questions left tantalisingly unanswered, and, with some unnecessary ‘twists’ which demanded more exploration or better handling, some threads left frustratingly unresolved. It leaves you wondering just what in the story is real, where its magic came from and perhaps most importantly: how old is Mags Maguire and how long  has she had that pub?

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Dark, strange and littered with magic, Spellbook of the Lost and Found is a stylishly written and pleasingly clever second novel from one of the best – if not the best – Irish writers of current YA. As beguiling as it is befuddling, it’s a sometimes imperfect but frankly unputdownable addition to recent YA magical realism. I’m intrigued to see what Fowley-Doyle writes next. 

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