"The Perfect Girl" Gilly MacMillan
Zoe, child prodigy and extraordinary pianist, is giving the most important performance of her lifetime when a man appears in the audience accusing her lying to each and every person in the room - including her new step father and step brother.
Zoe recognises the man. She killed his daughter. And six hours later, her mother is dead too.
The opening is very gripping - I had so many questions and was intrigued by this seemingly perfect girl who insinuated a dark hidden past. Indeed, Zoe has been in a Secure Unit for 18 months after killing 3 teenagers in a drink drive accident when she was 14. I had to read on. I had to know how a teenager with an exceptional IQ, caring, nurturing parents and a normal upbringing had become a murderer......... But as Zoe says, "A high IQ doesn't mean you're clever enough to avoid being a massive teenage cliche."
The story then moves backwards and forwards; one strand following on directly from events after the concert and the subsequent 6 hours leading up to the death of Zoe's mother, Maria. Another strand filling us in with events leading up to the accident which led to Zoe's arrest and further flashbacks from inbetween the events. The chapters are very short and we hear from Zoe, Lucas - her step brother, Tessa - her aunt, and Sam - the lawyer involved in defending Zoe and then called upon once her mother's death is discovered. This use of multiple narrators is really effective in revealing crucial information, clues and insight, so that the reader is able to piece together a full understanding of events and the complexities of the relationships between all the characters, as well as the events leading up to the fatal accident and then the death of Maria. I found it impossible to put down.
My favourite voice was Tessa, Maria's sister and Zoe's aunt. In a way, she is more of a friend to the reader; chatty, inviting confidence, giving us a more truthful account of events and providing more reliable insight about the other characters and events. There is more to Tessa than meets the eye. Prejudged by others because of her childlessness and still being single, she harbours some resentment and bitterness but is candid and astute in her observations. Tessa listens to Chris (Maria's new husband) as he reflects on Maria's "extraordinary qualities of sweetness and poise". Tessa knows that this shows how little he knows about her and her past as he's only met "her version of her ....coshed by antidepressants and shock not frailty and composure."
Zoe is also a very well drawn character. MacMillan successfully evokes a very normal, authentic, believable voice of a teenager. I liked her use of capital letters for added emphasis - "Second Chance Family", "Second Chance Baby," "Miracle Baby", "A Gift To Us All." They cleverly hint at underlying tension and the fact that Maria and Zoe are basically living under a ticking time bomb until their past catches up with them. MacMillan also captures the tension between Zoe and her mother both before the accident and after the man's outburst at the concert. She captures Zoe's grief following her mother's death convincingly; her confusion, anger, fear and regret as the full story unravels in front of everyone, are very well handled and presented. Zoe is also very likeable, very down to earth and very normal. She is sharp; her asides and comments capturing the dry sarcasm of a teenager: "I didn't realise I wasn't supposed to speak to Jack Bell because no one had explained to me that by virtue of his parents money, boy band hair, low riding jeans, Jack was Social Gold Dust and as Music Scholar I was automatically granted status of Social Pond Life."
MacMillan has made this novel very prevalent by incorporating the sinister side of social media in the life of teenagers and how various apps which seek to unite teenagers actually divide and destroy them. The anonymous messages that haunt Zoe create tension and suspense.
Lucas is also a great character. He has his own dark secret to reveal. He choses to tell Zoe his story through a film script he has written. I loved this technique. It is amazingly effective. Firstly it creates a change in narrative style which alters the pace and tension, but also it provides another point of view. It also creates a little bit of space between the reader and the emotional events it is about to recount. I found these sections quite captivating as well as beautifully executed. These sections are poignant and affecting without becoming too harrowing as we are essentially "watching" them through a screen that is a kind of buffer between us and the text.
The first half of the novel concerns itself with the Zoe's involvement with the death of three teenagers. It is not until just over 50% of the way through that we are reminded that Maria is also now dead. The novel then switches to the dramatic events between the end of the concert and the discovery of Maria's body. MacMillan expertly pulls the reader along with drama, revelation, unexpected twists and plenty of extra threads of further complications and twists; all speeding towards an incredibly satisfying and suitable climactic conclusion.
A very engaging read. I enjoyed Zoe's characterisation - a highly gifted and beautiful child whose talent actually separates her from her peers and her intelligence being academic rather than the common sense necessary for navigating her way through school and the teenage years. I liked the tension created through Maria's determination that she can simply bury her past and reinvent herself and her daughter in a Second Chance Life and the consequences of what happens when it catches up with you. I also liked the fact that Maria and Zoe are not the only characters with dark and sinister pasts........
I would recommend this book for all lovers of psychological thrillers who enjoy fast paced stories with multiple narratives and plenty of well executed plot lines which all converge to a devasting conclusion.
My thanks to NetGalley and the publishers for an advanced copy of this book in return for a fair and honest review.
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