Saturday 30 November 2013

The Girl Below by Bianca Zander - Guest Review

Today I'm thrilled to introduce to you Lisa.   Lisa and I met online through our love of books and reading, she lives in Leeds which is not so far away from me.  We manage to meet up every few months or so, in fact we've had a lovely lunch and a good old catch-up today in Leeds.

Lisa blogs at The Book Addicted Housewife and is also on Twitter @scarletwhite21, this is how Lisa describes herself:
I’m a busy mum of four who depends on reading to help me escape the arguments of three teens and the constant flux of dirty clothes and messy bedrooms....
I’ve always been a reader, devouring books from an early age and in the last few years I have taken to reviewing like a duck to water.  I love reading an excellent book and sharing my thoughts on it with other people and, to me, it also means the book doesn’t just end when I close it.
Head in a book?  Better than head stuck in the ironing basket!

Lisa has been kind enough to guest review for me, and is talking about The Girl Below by Bianca Zander - published by Alma Books in February 2013 ~ huge thanks to Marina from Alma Books who sent this copy for review.

Twenty years ago Suki was a normal little girl with two parents, living in a flat in Ladbroke Gardens celebrating their move up in the world by throwing a party.  
It is this party, you could say, that changes Suki. Witnessing some odd goings-on with her parents friends and her babysitter that remain in Suki’s head for years after and then, at the persuasion of those same friends going into the old bomb shelter where she falls into the darkness and experiences something very, very strange.  It is these two things that, years later, Suki is constantly taken back to in her head.

Six months later her father leaves for a business trip, never to return and Suki and her mother have to leave Ladbroke Gardens, eccentric neighbour Peggy and her daughter, Suki’s babysitter, Pippa. 

Ten years later Suki’s mother dies and with no one else to turn to Suki embarks on a trip to New Zealand to find her long gone father.  
The reunion is not successful; Suki now has a step-mother and two half siblings.  Putting the pieces of the jigsaw together Suki realises that her father must have been having an affair and left her and her mother for this woman who makes it clear she doesn’t want Suki in their life.

Adrift, Suki forges some semblance of life in New Zealand, a life that revolves around meaningless relationships and drugs, for ten years when she suddenly decides to return to England and London.
Visiting her childhood home in Ladbroke Gardens, Suki recognises Peggy’s name on a doorbell and gains admittance to the old lady who, though ill, recognises her and it is through her that Suki is able to contact her old babysitter Pippa, a woman who fascinated Suki all those years ago.

Suki is finding it difficult fitting back in London.  People she thought were friends years ago no longer want to know her and she is constantly taken back to that time of the party and being trapped in the bomb shelter, experiencing it over and over as if she were actually there....What does it mean and what is wrong with her?
Pippa offers Suki a job and then a roof over her head but it is only when they go to Greece that Suki’s waking nightmare starts to make sense and her melancholy to lift.  Could it be that Suki really has been trapped for all those years?

This is a strange but fascinating book.  It isn’t always clear what is going on with Suki’s trips into the past.  Is she hallucinating, dreaming, have all the drugs made her psychotic...?  But it is clear that there is something in her past that needs resolving and that something has been holding her back for twenty years.  

Suki is a fraught character, very needy, not surprisingly, having been abandoned by her father and then losing her mother at a young age and this shows in the way she has clung to men in relationships that were not good for her, in the way she has used drugs as an escape; she comes across as quite desperate but utterly sad and lost and as such you can’t help feeling sorry for her.

The episodes where she wakes to see the men in the garden covering the bomb shelter or finds herself in the shelter in the dark are thought provoking and mystifying; lots of thoughts went through my mind about this but I came to the conclusion that it was such a terrifying episode that subconsciously part of her was trapped in the shelter for all those years and subsequent events, her father leaving, mother dying, kept her there in the dark, lost and alone and it is only when she finds some place in life that she can find closure with that nightmarish experience.  Maybe I’m wrong but as nothing is clearly explained we have to make our own conclusions....

Overall, I found it a fascinating book, it kept me intrigued and it was an easy read.  There is some humour with Peggy but mainly it is a story that is tense and that tension is palpable to the reader, making it in places an uncomfortable read, but all credit to the author for that because it makes you really imagine how Suki feels and the descriptions of the incident in the shelter are very atmospheric. Characters are well drawn if not very likeable but for me that was not a problem, I like a book where the characters are flawed and where you have to think about and question things and where all is not sweetness and light, so all in all this ticked all the right boxes for me and I’d certainly recommend it.

British-born Bianca Zander has lived in Auckland, New Zealand, for the past two decades.  An established journalist, she has written for numerous publications, including the Listener, the Sunday Star-Times and The Dominion Post.  She has produced radio shows and written works for film and television, including the dramatic short film The Handover, which was screened at the Chicago Film Festival.  The Girl Below is her first novel.

Follow Bianca Zander on Twitter @BiancaZander and on Facebook

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