The Broken Girls
Simone St. James
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Buy *The Broken Girls* by Simone St. Jamesonline

The Broken Girls
Simone St. James
320 pages
March 2018
rated 4 of 5 possible stars

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Though St. James's tale begins in 2014, the story reaches far back to dark secrets originating fifty years ago in Idlewild Hall, a former girls' boarding school. The novel begins on the slope of Old Barron's Road. Freelance journalist Fiona Sheridan remains haunted by the death of her beloved sister, Deb. Jamie, Fiona's boyfriend, says it's not healthy to go to back Idlewild, but Fiona is convinced that Tim Christopher (who was ultimately convicted for Deb's murder) has not told the whole story. From a strand of exhaustion to a spurt of jagged energy, Fiona decides to return to the isolated field where Deb's body was discovered.

Jamie knows they covered everything because he's been through the murder file and seen that it's all there "in black and white." Yet Fiona is driven by the need to know how Deb was strangled and dumped in the middle of Idlewild's former sports field in 1994. The lack of footprints in the field or the woods has kept Fiona's emotional wounds bleeding long after everyone else has hobbled away. For the first time in twenty years, Fiona lets the words fill her head: "Could they have gotten it wrong?"

Idlewild Hall has been closed and abandoned since 1979, the gates locked and the grounds overgrown. Beyond the wind in the trees, Fiona notices a sign saying that Idlewild is now under construction and to be restored into a boarding school again. Fiona's journalistic instincts are aroused when the construction crew discover human remains, probably decades old. Perhaps the body is that of Sonya, an Idlewild girl who left to visit her great aunt. Reported missing in 1950, Sonya was presumed to have run away, and the case was closed.

The Broken Girls is about the lost nature of the place. Fiona and Jamie join forces, searching for a forbidden link in Idlewild's past and Sonya's last days. Fiona contacts the new owner, whose son is up from New York to oversee the restoration. She searches for the school's original plans, realizing that her night trip to Old Barron's Road has shaken something loose. She wants to write about Idlewild's history, the school looming silently in the back of her mind. Idlewild is a dark, wild, desolate environment where the spirit of Mary Hand haunts the unkempt trees and weedy flagstone paths.

In 1950, dark-haired and dominant Kate hears Mary's voice next to her. Talking about Mary Hand feels somehow like speaking of a family secret. Kate, Ce e, Sonia, and Roberta tell ghost stories in the dark. It isn't easy to survive in a boarding school of throwaway fifteen-year-old girls. From a message written in pencil in one of Idlewild's textbooks, to a figure walking over the Idlewild's barren fields, to a baby buried in the grounds, the girls have a blurry, queasy feeling, "a quick pulse of fear" that refuses to show, a terror made worse by the inherent cruelty of their teachers. Everyone knows about Mary Hand. Kate hears of Idlewild's myths, although she has no idea if it was true. For reasons she cannot explain to the others, Kate feels a connection, an uneasy understanding that fills her with dread and anxiety. Roberta also hears voices in the form of strange murmurings shaped around the melancholy story of Mary Hand, who continues to haunt Idlewild's hockey field, singing lullabies in the trees. Sonya is portrayed as a trapped, restless soul. Even after her death, she carries the ghosts of a Nazi concentration camp, a place of infamous evil.

The novel is reminiscent of Jennifer McMahon's stories, although St. James does a better job at merging her supernatural elements with her eerie setting--the abandoned remains of the once-notorious Idlewild Hall, the crumbling portico, the windows laced with overgrown vines, the plaster ceilings damp with rot and mold and the water-streaked the walls--and the damaged, impressionable girls, plotting to escape as voices from the past cry out to be heard.

Intricate and original, The Broken Girls cleverly blends two-time periods into an intriguing glimpse of Mary Hand, the mystery over Deb's last days, and the riddle of Sonya's living history. Armed with a series of sinister small-town secrets, Fiona and Jamie's investigation comes full circle, once again taking Fiona back into the orbit of her sister's menacing killer.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at Michael Leonard, 2018

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