THEY SAY A GIRL DIED HERE ONCE by Sarah Pinborough
Review by Gary Fry
I read this short novel in a single sitting and I can’t remember the last time I managed that (maybe a reread of Jackson’s similarly concise ’Hill House a few years back). If “unputdownability” is the ultimate yardstick against which we judge popular fiction, then Pinborough’s latest has a helluva lot going for it.
The book opens with its central character, Anna, living with her all-female family: sister, mother and grandmother. Her grandmother is experiencing incipient dementia, and it soon becomes apparent that Anna suffers a similar memory-related problem, which isn’t spelled out for the reader until later in the narrative (but those sensitive enough to detect apposite clues will work it out in advance).
It’s a tense, intriguing opening, and as the plot unfolds to incorporate the family’s new home and location, these matters are driven deeper, as other residents become both friendly and threatening, with Anna’s secret lurking at the heart of why she refuses to engage with them too quickly. She has a low-key job in the area, but when folk get too close, she shuts them out, clearly experiencing psychological residue of her trauma.
It is this aspect of the story which appealed to me most. Pinborough, as she demonstrated in 13 Minutes, is excellent at depicting slightly pissed-off, fearful, resilient female youth. Anna’s relationship with her sister is particularly convincing in this sense, as Anna simultaneously resents her innocence and is scared of how the 10 year-old will soon lose that shine.
Anna’s difficult relationship with her grandmother is similarly real and touching. The older woman, formerly an unimpeachable churchgoing type, has been changed through her illness, becoming less restrained by the moral chains of her community and expressing both her independence and the true values of life (the smoking episodes are especially well done in that regard).
Indeed, while dementia and its effects on memory (the book’s central theme) have set the grandmother free, it is Anna’s experiences in this new residential location which must perform a similar trick on her. But it isn’t going to be easy.
Now that everything is nicely set up, the plot-proper takes wing. Anna continually finds her grandmother up late at night, standing near their house’s cellar and experiencing the kind of mental fugue which makes her mutter suggestively weird comments (including the novel’s evocative title). Anna soon discovers from elsewhere – the only person she lets into her life, a similarly acerbic young female outsider – that two girls died in the community and that their killer hasn’t been apprehended yet. Can these dead girls be speaking through Anna’s grandmother, using her illness as a supernatural conduit?
Without giving too much away, let me say that Anna’s investigations will land her in all kinds of trouble, including blackmail, erroneous suspicions, an act of cruelty on her part, and a revelation which comes right out of leftfield. By the end of the book, the novel’s previously suppressed spookiness takes an original twist, and the final chapter does something so unexpected that I had to go back to the start to absorb all its tricksy implications.
In short, I truly enjoyed this tense, intriguing and original short novel. If it had any faults, I’d cite that hard-to-avoid part of the conclusion where the villains vocally reveal the backstory while stalking the heroine. On a technical note, there were one or two repeated phrases in the same passages (e.g. Anna twice thinks something like “if grandmother was going to intervene, this would be a good time”) which hint at a need for a further polish.
But these are relatively minor matters. The book remains a clever, different, and psychologically convincing narrative, and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to those in the mood for something dark, gripping and (maybe its best feature) original in its payoff.
On this evidence, Pinborough is the go-to mistress of well-characterised, arrestingly written, and intriguing story. What else can we ask for?
You can buy a copy here, and also check out newcomer Polly Morris’s suitably pungent and sulphurous cover artwork.