One should always be cautious when embarking on any novel described on the cover as “in the vein of.” Unfortunately, The Girl Below is no exception.
After a traumatic London childhood of divorce and abandonment, Suki Piper flees the city following her mother’s death from cancer. She discovers a disinterested father and his hostile second wife in New Zealand, neither with any concern for her future. Suki knocks about Auckland with no funds and a faulty sense of self, given to doomed romances with a series of losers, friends drawn from the coke-fueled 1980s drug scene. Forever haunted by distorted images of a party her parents threw when she was a child in London, complete with a catastrophic scare in an air raid bunker on the family’s property, Suki is a willing victim of her own disadvantages, a narcissist with a chronic inferiority complex: “Withheld affection is what she has come to think of as love.”
Couching the origins of Suki’s psychological conflicts in the dark passages of magical realism, Zander never fully commits, creating a bizarre tale of quasi-threat and self-sabotage that does nothing to inspire confidence in her protagonist. After ten years of aimless, low-wage jobs and emotionally damaging relationships that evolve into one-night stands in New Zealand, the penniless wanderer returns to London but fails to reconnect with former acquaintances, boring them with her tale of woes, finally hopeful of shelter after visiting an elderly neighbor at her old building. Thanks to the woman’s dementia and need for a temporary caretaker, Suki is welcomed by her daughter, Pippa, and haphazardly absorbed into Pippa’s family, a dysfunctional stew of squabbling siblings and a rebellious adolescent.
But wherever Suki goes, her nightmares follow. The reckoning with an unresolved past occurs at her elderly neighbor’s apartment, in Pippa’s house, and on the Greek Island of Skyros, where Suki’s psyche clears for the first time in nearly thirty years, offering a brief insight into the events the night of her parents’ party. Sadly, the awakening arrives too late to save Suki, the other characters and the reader from a tedious series of events, from nightmares to ghostly apparitions, an unsavory roll in the hay with an underage teenager only one of Suki’s displays of poor judgment.
The danger in setting a plot in the tangled web of family dysfunction and general unhappiness is the sheer weight of a novel mired in tragedy without relief—and with no redeeming characters to offer insight beyond the obvious dramas filling Suki’s mind. Zander offers no hope or joy, only the tedium of hard times, the story as suffocating as the shelter Suki dreads revisiting.
It doesn’t serve to bury a protagonist in misery, with no space for maturity or growth. Regardless how inquisitive or bright she might have been as a child, the girl simply has no sense of humor: the ultimate tragedienne. Geographic detours aside, Suki continues to swim in the murky water of the air raid shelter that haunts her dreams, a Freudian explanation hardly sufficient for all the Sturm und Drang endured along the way. If magical realism is evoked to explain the inexplicable, the writer must be fearless enough to encounter what lies on the other side without equivocation. No risk, no reward. Here’s hoping Zander will embrace that fearlessness.