This 1960s school girl’s coming of age story takes a tragic turn, morphing into a dark psychological suspense with a ghostly overlay.
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. Dressed in grey pleated skirts and green V-necked jumpers, the choir of girls sing along with various degrees of talent, the teacher frustrated as usual with their efforts.
Following choir, other elements of the girls’ everyday school lives vividly tumble out through Sally’s running commentary. We hear her classmates’ banter, Shakespearean analysis and teenaged rivalries; we see their desk lids papered with magazine cut-outs of the Beatles and Stones.
We follow Sally and Pamela as they duck out-of-bounds to eat lunch, smoke cigarettes, sneak out of school to miss sport, sample perfumes, listen to records, debate haircuts, contemplate homework, go to parties, get called to the black-robed principal’s office.
All the well-worn activities of girls of their age at the time.
Ever so gradually, however, ominous threads begin to weave into their story. For instance, the curious characteristics of loner classmate, Sylvia Rose – a magnet for the rancour of Sally and Pamela – slowly turn from being simply odd to otherworldly. Sally also notices bruises on Pamela she suspects may have been inflicted by her friend’s father although it’s never confirmed.
Classmates attempt clandestine séances, fun at first but tinged with fear. Soon after, a younger student runs hysterically screaming from a classroom after seeing silhouettes in the empty room. While each of these little creepy events are perturbing in themselves, they don’t truly prepare the reader for the tragedy and psychological roller-coaster that unfolds.
The novel resolutely morphs into a paranormal horror story, centred around Sally’s old, imposing and apparently haunted school building