Horlock’s protagonist states her case: “I was a murderer before I was even born,” a blunt assertion from an overweight fifteen-year-old the brunt of her classmates’ jokes on the small island of Guernsey in the English Channel. Catherine Rozier is referring to the death of her best friend, Nicole (Nic) Prevost, who has recently turned on Cat with unexpected fury. As Nic’s physical attacks accelerate, culminating in the girl’s death, the “murderess” confides her story.
Cat’s 1980s tale is linked to the history of her Uncle Charlie, who was fifteen during the German Occupation of the island in World War II. Given its unique position in the English Channel, tiny Guernsey is to become the model of German Occupation, but the reality proves to be a bizarre coexistence where islanders are forced to accept their occupier’s presence, small forces of resistance terribly risky for the other residents of Guernsey: “Why is it that the most important questions are the ones you ask too late?”
Seeking to make his mark on the only world he knows, young Charlie is eventually arrested and shipped to a concentration camp for the duration of the war. His story and the machinations of friends, foes and family give context to Cat’s claim that the past has dictated her present identity as a killer. Whether or not Horlock makes her point is another story. Rotating between the two adolescents and the very different environments they inhabit, the historical aspect of the novel is far superior - and easily more compelling - than Catherine’s repertoire of deceits, bad behavior and endless self-justification. Cat’s attempt at self-mockery, intended to inject humor into the novel, becomes instead a carping on the shortcomings of others. Less clear (even when it is explained) is Nic’s motive for befriending the class outcast in the first place.
Clearly a mean girl, Nic enjoys all the benefits of beauty and popularity from the time she arrives at the school as a new student, the center of social activity, where acceptance is everything. Nic lures Catherine into friendship only to turn viciously on her, facilitating the skirmish that ends in her own death. In between is a clumsy relationship fraught with the push and pull of girls in search of trouble, drinking and carousing with abandon - even the awkward Cat, who manages to insert herself into most social situations.
Islanders are a rough sort, forced into the meager confines of life under the Germans and later, in Cat’s experiences, with a history that haunts them by virtue of geography, most having known one another’s business for a lifetime. Hence, the actions of one generation affect another, the past a powerful indicator of the future. Amid assorted lies, inappropriate attractions and an innate penchant for mischief, neither Catherine nor Charlie are remotely engaging personalities, given to smugness of character rather than generosity.
In addition, an elaborate use of footnotes in Cat’s chapters serve as a further distraction: a teen engaged in stream-of-consciousness observations that become a wall of white noise. Catherine’s incessant nattering never makes her more appealing or relatable, the adolescent ego of a fifteen-year-old rarely conducive to self-reflection. In the end, each character does what he or she is inclined to do, the others suffering the consequences of a secret infidelity, the suspended morality of war and the escalating animosity between friends who are clearly never that. Perhaps if Horlock had begun with Charlie - but she didn’t, inflicting her readers with Catherine Rozier instead in a meandering tale as twisted as the paths down to the sea.