Penguin Books, 2013, 383 pages
One fateful summer morning in 1986, two 11-year-old girls meet for the first time and by the end of the day are charged with murder.
Twenty-five years later, journalist Kirsty Lindsay is reporting on a series of attacks on young female tourists in a seaside town when her investigation leads her to interview funfair cleaner Amber Gordon. For Kirsty and Amber, it's the first time they've seen each other since that dark day when they were just children. But with new lives — and families — to protect, will they really be able to keep their secret hidden?
Even here in the US, we've heard of the Jamie Bulger case, so I recognized Alex Marwood's inspiration for The Wicked Girls immediately. But her protagonists differ from their real-life counterparts in more ways than just being girls.
Annabel Oldacre and Jade Walker are an unlikely pair; Annabel is a private school student from a wealthy family, while Jade's family is trailer trash. (Translate Americanisms into Britishisms as needed.) They meet by chance one day, while Jade is supposed to be watching a neighbor's child. Annabel is the lonely child of distant parents who's delighted to make a friend. Jade is a bit of a tramp, yet moralistic in her own way, and bemused by the posh girl with the cut glass accent who wants to hang out with her.
By the end of the day, the four-year-old girl with them is dead and the two of them will become the most notorious and hated girls in England.
Twenty-five years later, the two of them are both living under new identities, but under lifelong probationary conditions. They have to check in monthly, notify their case officers before they move, and they cannot contact one another, or the family of their victim, ever again. Both of them have hidden their past from everyone, including their current families, and neither are in contact with their birth families.
The fact that the two notorious child-killers were given the protection of anonymity and new identities is one of the issues raised in the novel. Also coming in for critique are the role of the media, especially modern journalism consisting of a few Google searches and a click-baity headline, class differences, and the eternal debate about whether there is such as a thing as someone born to be bad.
Jade is now Kirsty Lindsay, a journalist, and Annabel is Amber Gordon, a cleaner at the amusement park. When Amber finds one of the bodies, Kirsty comes with all the other journalists following the story, and the two of them recognize each other. At first, Amber doesn't want to talk — besides the fact that they both could go back to prison if caught talking to one another, Amber is the former rich girl who now cleans spilled soda and vomit and lives with an emotionally abusive boyfriend, while Jade was the girl without a future who now has a middle-class life, a career, a husband and children.
It turns out that the two of them were treated very differently while they were institutionalized. Jade was assumed to have been the follower, coming from a working class background and thus naturally unable to know right from wrong. She was sent to a relatively progressive facility where she was allowed an education, and became a talented writer. Annabel, on the other hand, coming from a background of privilege, was assumed to have been the dominant member of the pair, the evil mastermind without a conscience. She was sent to a hell-hole, emerging broken and friendless with all hope crushed out of her.
The Wicked Girls has a nicely twisting plot and a range of secondary characters, each of them bringing up other issues; Amber's manipulative common-law husband, Kirsty's proud, liberal but judgmental husband who's been laid off, the minimum wage workers at the amusement park that Amber has been put in charge of, the abused girl she takes in who turns on her, and of course, the media, which just like twenty-five years ago, seizes on lurid details and interviews with unreliable people to construct a narrative that will sell papers and generate moral outrage, whether or not it actually bears any resemblance to the truth.
This is a suspenseful psychological thriller — not so much because of the murderer, who as I said above, is not much of a mystery, but because we know somehow or other, the reuniting of Jade/Kirsty and Annabel/Amber is going to end badly. As their lives unravel once again, I felt sorry for both of them, and the climax was something that will stay with you for a while.
Verdict: A suspenseful and surprisingly complex book, The Wicked Girls is a very good debut novel that will have me keeping an eye out for more by this writer. 8/10.
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