I was excited to receive a copy of The Girl Below through LibraryThing’s Early Reviewer Program. I easily read it in a weekend–partially because it was fairly fast-paced and easy to read and partially because I enjoyed it so much. It’s the perfect mix of mystery and fiction–just enough mystery to be intriguing and keep you wondering, but light enough to allow you to focus on the characters and their story as well.
The Girl Below centers around Suki Piper, who’s in her late 20’s and has returned to London, where she was born and raised, after spending over 10 years in New Zealand. Suki’s mother passed away just before she fled to New Zealand, where she unsuccessfully tries to reconnect with her father, who left the family’s home to go on a business trip many years ago, but never returned.
Upon deciding to leave New Zealand and return “home,” Suki’s struggling in every sense of the word–to make ends meet, to find a job, to keep a roof over her head and to come to terms with her past. She temporarily crashes on a friend’s couch while job searching, and one day decides to visit her childhood flat. She hopes to reconnect with her old neighbors, Pippa, who babysat her as a child, and Pippa’s mom Peggy. But Suki finds that Peggy’s ailing and Pippa, along with her husband and teenage son, own their own home nearby. Her visit also stirs up a haunting childhood memory of a crazy party her parents hosted and a WWII bunker in their backyard. She then starts to piece together memories from her childhood, in order to find out what really happened that night.
The book’s chapters alternate between memories from Suki’s childhood and her current day life, which I think contributed to the book’s success. I liked reading about parts of her childhood through the eyes of a child, in an effort to put together pieces of the puzzle from that mysterious evening and the aftermath. And I was just as absorbed in her current day life, as she gets pulled into Pippa and Peggy’s lives when she agrees to first be a caretaker for Peggy while her nurse is away, and then a babysitter of sorts for Pippa’s angst-ridden teenage son, and then finally, as a caretaker again in Greece when Peggy falls ill during the family’s vacation.
The only aspect of the novel that gave me pause was the bit of surrealism or magic that Suki encounters as she comes to terms with the past. This magical element helps Suki bridge the past and present in order to resolve the mystery and comes to terms with her past and her family, and I think it worked here–but I don’t think resorting to the supernatural is something that most novels can or should do.
The Girl Below is Bianca Zander’s first novel. Zander, similar to Suki, was born in Britain and lives in New Zealand. Zander’s writing was smart and surprising. To be honest, I wished the book was longer. I really liked Suki’s character, partially because of her plentiful flaws (perhaps almost too plentiful), which made her seem real. I liked the dynamic between the characters and how the story wasn’t at all predictable. Overall, I think The Girl Below is a great light read–perfect for your summer reading list!