by Carol Birch
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Pub Date 14 Apr 2022 | Archive Date 14 Apr 2022
Head of Zeus, Apollo
Manchester, 1960s. Sally, a cynical 15-year-old schoolgirl, is much too clever for her own good. When partnered with her best friend, Pamela – a mouthy girl who no-one else much likes – Sally finds herself unable to resist the temptation of rebellion. The pair play truant, explore forbidden areas of the old school and – their favourite – torment posh Sylvia Rose, with her pristine uniform and her beautiful voice that wins every singing prize.
One day, Sally ventures (unauthorised, of course) up to the greenhouse on the roof alone. Or at least she thinks she's alone, until she sees Sylvia on the roof too. Sally hurries downstairs, afraid of Sylvia snitching, but Sylvia appears to be there as well.
Amidst the resurgence of ghost stories and superstition among the girls, a tragedy is about to occur, one that will send Sally more and more down an uncanny rabbit hole...
Praise for Carol Birch:
'A naturally literary writer who can, with a simple image, evoke the deepest emotion' GUARDIAN
'Her prose has an irresistible vigour ... Her words sing on the page' FINANCIAL TIMES
'A beautifully written story of ghosts, loneliness and buried secrets' CHOICE
'Fusing the supernatural with the psychological, Birch's story is, at its heart, a human one' BIG ISSUE
Available on NetGalley
Average rating from 48 members
‘Shadow Girls’ is a strange, poignant novel which begins as a straightforward exploration of teenage girls’ lives in the 1960s but becomes much more. The author Carol Birch plays with genres and timelines, with perspective and with our expectations.
Sally and her friend Pamela, an opinionated girl whom nobody much likes, enjoy carrying out small rebellious acts to enliven dull school days. Some of these amount to bullying Sylvia, an old-fashioned, only child with a remarkable singing voice. Sally’s parents are extraordinarily hands-off whilst Pamela’s are hands-on when a hard slap is her due. Birch doesn’t dwell on the trio’s backgrounds but the details given allow us to understand why they all do what they do over the course of the narrative.
Above all, this is a story about tragedy left unexpressed, about damaged people and long-lasting guilt. Birch doesn’t shy away from the cruelties inflicted as she explores her teenage girls’ confused identities and, as they grow into adulthood, their discontented schooldays still cast a shadow. Whilst some readers clearly feel that the supernatural elements of the novel mar its credibility, I prefer to see them as a metaphor for the psychological damage caused by guilt and grief. As the adult Sally explains, ‘Inside me was the endless Steppe, lonely and beautiful, that nothing could ever touch.’
Whilst the final pages are a little hackneyed but, overall, this is a beautifully written story which haunts the reader well after the last page is turned.
My thanks to NetGalley and Head of Zeus Apollo for a copy of this novel in exchange for a fair review.
From the opening pages of Shadow Girls, it’s easy to be lulled into thinking author Carol Birch is embarking on a nostalgic story about girls on the cusp of womanhood at the time of her own teenaged years in 1960s Manchester.
But the deeper in you go, a haunting, supernatural darkness begins to seep into the pages, twisting it well clear of a simple coming of age story.
It opens harmlessly enough: the teenaged narrator Sally and her rebellious best friend Pamela are part way through a music lesson at their all girls’ school. Other elements of their everyday lives are vividly unveiled through Sally’s running commentary: all the well-worn activities of adventurous girls of their age at the time.
Ever so gradually, however, ominous threads begin to appear – little creepy events that are perturbing in themselves, but don’t truly prepare you for the psychological roller-coaster that unfolds, as the novel resolutely morphs into a paranormal horror story.
Experienced author Birch – who has penned 12 previous novels, including Booker Prize finalist Jamrach’s Menagerie – deserves praise for the crescendo of suspense created in Shadow Girls.
But, while the tension and eeriness is palpable, I did feel at times the pacing was a bit off. And, while I’m not one to crave a neat ending, I felt there were quite a few ends that remain a little too loose. In fact I’m still quite confused by some of the paranormal activity in the novel and also so many side-story details that seemingly have very little – or no? – relevance to the plot.
But then, when does logic or neat endings really ever play a part in horror stories?
They’re always more about the lingering anxiety and atmosphere, rather than plot.
And, just like those other time-worn ghost stories of old, the dark shadow of this novel clings for some time after the final page.
Thanks to Net Galley and Head of Zeus for this early copy to review.
I received an advanced reader’s copy in exchange for an honest review
I loved this one. Very fast paced, had me turning pages as I tore through it – I had to see how it would end. The characters were well rounded and the narrative felt believable. Gave me chills. Solid five
This novel is extraordinarily absorbing- a slow burn of a tale that gets to you without you even realising it until you find that you can't stop thinking about it.
Looking back after coming to the end I found Shadow Girls to be quietly terrifying really. A girl literally haunted by a tragedy that occurred when she was at school, the shadow hanging over her entire life with ghosts around every corner. In a lot of ways interpretative, beautifully written and dripping with atmosphere from first page to last.
Very much recommended.
Sally is a typical school girl of 1960s Manchester. The 15-year-old believes herself a lot cleverer than her class mates and also her family. With her new best friend Pamela, she tries to extent the rules, takes her freedoms and over and over again gets into trouble. Most fun both have tormenting Sylvia Rose, a shyish, old-fashioned girl of their class. Even though Sally and Sylvia do have some common interests, she follows Pamela’s example and makes fun of her, some of their tricks go quite far, humiliating their class mate in front of the whole school. Common among the girls of their school is the attraction by superstition and an ouija board they secretly use during their breaks. When it predicts some bad luck, they do not want to believe it even though they are clearly warned by one of their teachers. But then, the unthinkable happens and will haunt Sally for the rest of her life.
Carol Birch’s novel is an addictive combination of school girl, coming-of-age and ghost novel. She cleverly turns the carefree, boisterous girls into fearful and edgy young women. The story is told from Sally’s point of view so we often get to know her thoughts which are convincingly portrayed: it is not easy to be a teenager, conflicting feelings, knowing what is right but doing what is wrong, making the wrong decisions and regretting them later.
The novel is divided into three chapters named “penumbra”, “umbra” and “anteumbra”. I was trying to make sense of this, but I am not sure if I really got the meaning. Maybe it reflects Sally’s mental state which deteriorates throughout the plot. Maybe this is linked to the idea of the ghosts and seeing or not seeing things, being tricked by the eye.
There is an uneasy feeling looming over the story, you know it is not going to run out well, yet, you cannot be sure what is real and what is only imagined. Is there some supernatural power making sure that there is some kind of pay back for the evil done? Or is it just all the imagination of a young woman at the edge? Captivating once you have started with some unexpected twists.
This book really makes you think! I was totally wrapped up in it and I really enjoyed it. It was a fast read despite being a bit of a slow burn. Good read!
Quite the slow burn for the first half of the book.
Setting the scene,and for me,bringing all sorts of feelings of nostalgia.
Then the book takes a turn,and it became a whole different thing.
Slightly unsettling,and tense.
It's always hard to describe without giving too much away.
I read it in one sitting though,and that's a good recommendation as far as I'm concerned.
I'll look out for this author again.
Shadow Girls is a beguiling story that transports the reader into the protagonist's school and teen life of yesteryear. It is redolent with the sights, sounds, tastes, fashions and culture of the time. Thus, there is a familiarity that will appeal to readers of a certain age. Yet, it is equally sure to engage and resonate with a younger audience, given its timeless themes and mix of humorous, bittersweet and haunting narrative.
My thanks to NetGalley and Head of Zeus for this e-ARC in exchange for an honest review.
Oh wow, where to begin with this read? Its powerful, thought provoking and unusual (for the right reasons). One that will stay with me and really makes you think. Read in one sitting, I just got so absorbed.
Having enjoyed two of Carol Birch’s earlier novels – Orphans of the Carnival and the Booker Prize shortlisted Jamrach’s Menagerie – I decided to try her new book, Shadow Girls. I enjoyed this one too, but it’s a very strange novel and not quite what I’d expected!
From the blurb, I had thought this was going to be a ghost story, but for the first half of the book at least, it’s much more of a ‘school story’. Our narrator, Sally, is a fifteen-year-old girl growing up in 1960s Manchester and the time and place are vividly evoked with references to the music, films, fashion and culture of the decade woven into the narrative. Like most girls her age, then and now, Sally’s life revolves around schoolwork and spending time with her friends and her boyfriend, and this is the focus of the first section of the book. Through Sally’s eyes we get to know her best friend, Pamela, a rebellious troublemaker nobody else likes, and their ‘enemy’ Sylvia Rose, a girl from a posh background who is a talented classical singer. She also describes her feelings for Rob, her first serious boyfriend, whom she is starting to have doubts about.
The supernatural element of the story isn’t introduced until surprisingly late in the novel, when Sally has a mysterious encounter with Sylvia that will haunt her for the rest of her life. The pace picks up from this point and it does become the ghost story I had expected – in fact, it’s quite a creepy one, particularly as, like many good ghost stories, it’s never completely clear which of Sally’s experiences are real and which are in her mind.
Despite not much happening for half of the book, I found it all very absorbing and was pulled into Sally’s world from the first page. I’m not sure whether so much build up was really necessary, but I enjoyed it anyway and found the book so difficult to put down that I ended up reading most of it in one day.
Shadow Girls, the latest novel by Carol Birch, is divided into three sections which, in a play on the title, are named after the three parts of a shadow: penumbra, umbra and antumbra. The first two segments of the novel are set in a girls’ secondary school in mid-1960s Manchester. The narrator, Sally, is a fifteen-year-old student preparing for her O-Levels. Like her schoolmates, she is also navigating the challenges of growing up, including recurring doubts about her first serious relationship (with the dependable, level-headed Rob). Sally’s best friend is Pamela, a troubled troublemaker whom no one really seems to like. Under her influence, Sally indulges in rebellious acts. They play truant and venture into areas of the school which are out-of-bounds for students, such as the basement and the greenhouse on the school roof. Their nemesis and long-suffering “victim” is Sylvia Rose, an only child hailing from a posh background, who is also a promising classical singer. In the second part of the book, several uncanny – possibly supernatural – incidents herald a horrific, although not entirely unexpected, tragedy that leaves a mark on the school and on Sally in particular. The final segment in the book is set around twelve years later. After having worked and lived in different parts of England, Sally returns to the area where she grew up and reconnects with several of her old schoolmates. Her past starts to haunt her, leading to a terrifying conclusion. A brief afterword – aptly titled “After” – clears up some of the ambiguity of the final pages.
I was drawn to this novel because of the blurb that describes it as having “elements of the ghost story”. However, Shadow Girls is rather atypical of the genre. Its first part is closer to the “girls school” story. Birch does an exceptional job at recreating the 1960s atmosphere, the (authentically “dated”) expressions used by the students, and the rivalries, friendships and bullying typical of the school environment. However, possibly because that particular world seems alien to this middle-aged male reader, I found this initial segment, well-written as it is, very slow and occasionally downright boring. Indeed, I was sorely tempted to abandon the book. I’m glad I didn’t. The pace picks up steadily in the second segment and, in the final part, we’re more decidedly in “ghost story” territory with Birch pulling out the stops and relying more heavily (and effectively) on the tropes of supernatural fiction. In particular, she makes good use of that ambiguity typical of some of the best ghostly tales. Is there a prosaic explanation for the supernatural events portrayed? Should they be taken literally, or are they the product of mental health issues affecting an unreliable narrator?
Shadow Girls is a book I would recommend, albeit with a warning that whoever reads it for the thrills and chills should be patient and perseverant.
As other reviewers have mentioned, good depictions of a boarding school in Britain, class issues, and the early teenage years and their issues (parents, popularity, attractiveness, again, class.) The mystery was pretty gripping.
I enjoyed it and should note that I read a lot of mysteries and thrillers, especially ones featuring girls in this age group, and there are many (OK, maybe I have some unresolved issues from those years myself?).
This one stood out for the story, setting, and characters.
This felt like a spooky Catcher in the Rye to me, with an elevated unreliable narrator. It's definitely a slow burn, and it's creepy factor comes through in a more nuanced way than a typical spooky story. Definitely felt gothic at times. I enjoyed it more than I thought I would.
Combining psychological suspense with elements of the ghost story, The characters were easy to invest in. Atmospheric, haunting and superbly paced.
This is an interesting, if slightly disjointed book. It focuses on a young girl, Sally, and her friendship with Pamela and antagonisms against another schoolmate, Sylvia Rose. This is a psychosexual drama about the cruelty and mysticism of teenage girls. It's as much about the expression of rage as it is about the oppression of it and curiously the most opaque character of all is the narrator herself. It's in the realm of a Henry James novel as the character continuously questions her own involvement in driving the story forward but the realism is heavy in the novel, leading to a slow and believable burn into the supernatural.
An unsettling and compelling ghost story, 'Shadow Girls' starts in the 1960s, where the narrator, Sally, is an ordinary teenager. She attends an unremarkable girls' school in Manchester, has a nice boyfriend whom she suspects she does not appreciate enough, and enjoys a little light rule-breaking with her loud mouthed friend Pamela. But then Pamela's feud with snooty classmate Sylvia begins to get out of hand, and rumours of strange phenomena start spreading amongst the girls. The events that follow will continue to haunt Sally well into her adulthood.
The novel is one of those supernatural tales which never tries to explain itself or offer explanations, which can be frustrating, but is often better than the alternative. Sally is a likeable and believable narrator, and the writing flows well. The environment of the school is conjured up very vividly, as is the 1960s setting. Although I went to school several decades later, Birch captures the interactions and preoccupations of teenage girls very well and I could recognise them from my own experiences. She somehow can capture the underlying essence of a place and time in a way that goes beyond words.
I found it an intriguing story because I wasn't really sure where it was going to go, which made it compelling. It's not very often that an avid reader gets a storyline that they can't see the likely outcome of. Birch writes the supernatural happenings in a way that is very believable - the way people react and behave felt like the way I might myself, if caught in a ghostly situation.
The ambiguity about what was happening and why will keep me thinking about the story - I know I'm going to be lying in bed tonight trying out different theories. All of Birch's books have stayed with me well - even several years after reading 'Jamrach's Menagerie' for example I can remember far more about it than probably any other book I read that year. I think this one is going to be similar, even though it is a very different story from that one. Birch is a versatile author who doesn't stick to a formula and her novels are always worth reading. I would recommend this to anyone who likes literary fiction and slow paced psychological thrillers. And be warned - it's a book that gets under your skin. You don't realise the effect it has whilst you're reading but it had me jumping at shadows all evening!
This is a slow burn of a read. There's an overall feeling of dread looming over the narrative. I kept waiting for the inevitable, unable to predict where the tale was heading.
Teenage girls in mid-sixties Manchester, at a creepy old school, near a park called Piccadilly where a statue of Queen Victoria looms large. These girls have pictures of the Beatles and the Stones taped to their desks, wondering which ones they're going to marry. Birch absolutely nails the teenage girl banter, mannerisms, pranks, bullying, eye-rolling contempt for anything their parents, teachers, other adults might have to say. Eerie things happen. One of these teenagers, Sally, is our narrator.
Time jumps, abruptly, and we catch up with Sally in her twenties. She hasn't thought much about those haunting days at school, until a chance meeting pulls her right back into her buried memories. We spend the rest of our time with Sally as she wrestles with those memories, her history with the school.
I don't want to say much more and get into spoiler territory. I think this creepy story with its weird creepy girls in their old creepy school will stay with me for a while. I'll be seeking out more titles by Carol Birch.
My thanks to NetGalley and Head of Zeus for the ARC in exchange for an honest review.
This novel, set in 1960s and 70s Manchester, largely takes place in a girls’ boarding school and later, in the same building that, perhaps anomalously for the era, has been converted into residential flats. The book’s earlier sections deal with the collective psyche of adolescent girls in close quarters – think Picnic at Hanging Rock, or Carol Morley’s film The Falling – complete with ambivalent, burgeoning sexuality and spooky goings-on. One girl dies in mysterious circumstances, another appears to go mad. In its latter sections, the book morphs into a more conventional ghost story. I was left wanting more of the girls’ school sections, which dealt with the themes of adolescent psychological development in a really interesting way.
Thanks to NetGalley for the ARC.
A very unusual story about the pains of growing up and the pain of never quite being satisfied. Carol Birch has written a story that could be considered contemporary fiction about female friendship OR it could be considered a story about mental health OR it could be considered a story about being haunted about guilt. But it's all of these.
Sally is 15 and and attending an all girls school in the mid 1960s. She is friends with Pamela, a rough girl who no one else likes, and they both spend large parts of the day in the greenhouse on the roof. Their classmate, Sylvia, a prim and proper girl, is their enemy and constant source of their bullying. Many nights, Sally ends by staring out her window, looking at the train passing by.
Tragedy happens at school, followed by another incident that causes some sort of incident at the school. Sally breaks up with her long term boyfriend Robin and then....and then the book takes off into an amazing, beautiful turn..several years into the future. Sally and her friends have finished college and are young adults. Sally and Robin run into each other in the street and reconnect. He's living in her old school, which has recently become an apartment building. And this is where the most interesting part of the book begins.
Carol Birch has written this haunting story that almost...melts your brain. Timelines weave in and out as Sally falls deeper and deeper into her mania and confusion. Visions and voices appear and you wonder if Sally is the only one who is experiencing it or if everyone is.
I found the "aftermath" the cherry on top of this story. It's added the extra something that I didn't realize that this story needed. It was already excellent but this just made it....near perfect.
Thank you to NetGalley and the publishers for the opportunity to read and review this book.
I really enjoyed this book it was well written with a gripping storyline and well developed and dynamic characters. I didn't this book to be eerie and dark but it was and I loved it. Unpredictable and emotive, a really good read.
An excellent, eerie drama set mostly in a school for girls in 1960s Manchester. Beautifully written and engrossing throughout, this story brought back lots of memories for me personally. The descriptions of life in the 1960s and 70s are so realistic and detailed, right down to the smell of Coty perfume and the less pleasant lingering odour of school dinners. A truly wonderful, poignant and thought provoking read.
This is a slow burn novel about three young women- Sally, Pamela, and Sylvia-at school in Manchester in the 1960s and the aftermath of something dreadful. Sally was always a good girl until she met the rambunctious and obnoxious Pamela and together they mean-girled the wealthy and musically talented Sylvia. Throw Rob, Sally's boyfriend, in the mix and it's a stew of adolescence. And then Sally sees Sylvia as a ghost (my shorthand) or is she? The first two thirds of this book focus on the school years, the last third is Sally's struggle with what happened, especially after she reconnects with Rob. It's hard to describe this but know that it's thought provoking about how we treat one another and the repercussions that echo into our brains. Thanks to Netgalley for the ARC. A good read.
A spooky story set in a girls school during the 1960s. The writing builds a great description of the school and life for the girls who attended, creating an almost nostalgic setting for the story which unfolds. The story has three main characters, Sally, Pamela and Sylvia, who all attend the school. Sally and Pamela are best friends and wannabe rebels, whilst Sylvia is a quiet strait-laced girl who doesn't really fit in with her class mates. The story takes a darker turn after the girls experiment with a ouija board and life changes forever.
I really enjoyed this story, it is a bit of a slow start but is definitely worth sticking with. I couldnt put the book down. Spooky and eerie- absolutely brilliant!
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