The Girl Below by Bianca Zander
Bianca Zander's debut novel, The Girl Below, is a terrific read - the sort of book you don't want to put down, and then stays with you when you do.
The central character, Suki Piper, returns to London after a decade in Auckland and for many reasons she occupies a world out-of-kilter. Suki had fled London after the death of her mother but found scant welcome from her father and his new family in the Waikato. However, the London she returns to is not the London she left. Everything seems to startle and disappoint her.
Two equally strong forces drive the novel: a mystery and Suki herself. Despite the pull of the mystery, this narrative is achingly real.
Suki keeps returning to the past and the past keeps returning to her. She is haunted by a key incident that arrives in disconcerting flashes and experiences. The night before her parents separated they held a decadent party. Somehow Suki almost drowns in an air-raid shelter, but the whole occasion is sealed in the murky and
unreliable grip of memory.
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Zander works the entwined themes of estrangement and strangeness beautifully. Certain objects pulsate with such weirdness Suki cannot bear to be in the same room. It is as though they become alive with her fears.
We are given a puzzle both psychological and real, which is the key to Suki. Rippling out from the cloudiness of the air-raid incident are the uncertain relations she has with her parents and the other occupants of the apartment building.
What lifts the book beyond the allure of mystery is the complexity of Suki - she is both frail and fierce. She is an object of pity: mother dead, stepmother dislikes her, no job, no money, no lover, no place to call her own, zero self-esteem. In Auckland she writes herself off, again and again; with drugs, drink and make-do sex.
Despite this miniature portrait I have drawn, neither novel nor Suki remain in a bleak state of darkness and despair. There is a turning-point when Suki meets up with her old babysitter from the apartment and gets to mind the babysitter's son. The son (for some inexplicable reason) is a wild little punk and is Suki's salvation as much as she is his.
I can see why the book was initially picked up in the United States. In her end-note, Zander says it has been through a number of drafts and it shows. You might think there is a high risk of superficial stereotypes at work here (a cranky stepmother, a selfish father, a distant mother, spiteful friends). Far from it.
Zander shows novels can embody truth - in the dialogue that hits the perfect pitch, in the emotional span from glee to guts to grief and in the individual yet recognisable passage to a point of survival. I loved it.
Paula Green is an Auckland poet and children's author.