The Burning Girls
CJ Tudor
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Buy *The Burning Girls* by CJ Tudor online

The Burning Girls
CJ Tudor
Ballantine Books
352 pages
February 2021
rated 4 of 5 possible stars

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"Do you believe in evil? Can someone be born bad?"
In 1990 in the village of Chapel Croft, two local girls go missing. Both are presumed to be on the run. Such a move is seen as normal, and the police do not treat their disappearance as suspicious.

Now, years later, Reverend Jack Brooks has been transferred to this quaint place--a beautiful part of the country with its fresh air and bucolic fields that reflect this small and safe community. Less high profile, the Croft may be good for Jack and her teenage daughter, Flo. At first glance, the chapel doesn't look much like a place of worship, though Jack notices the presence of two tiny twig dolls. A village tradition, they're made to commemorate the Sussex Martyrs, villagers who were burned to death during Queen Mary's purge of Protestants.

The contrast between Jack's insecurities over her new job and the mysteries behind Chapel Croft's dark past holds significance. Jack worries about Flo and her own new role as the village's spiritual counselor, especially after the recent suicide of her predecessor, Reverend Fletcher, who was rumored to have suffered mental health issues. Jack knows that Fletcher's death will probably affect how she runs things as well as people's perception of both the chapel and the vicar.

The bonds of the villagers remain strong, all grafted together emotionally - a hard nut to crack for Jack and Flo, particularly Simon Harper, who has lived in the village for generations. The Harpers' ancestry goes all the way back to the Sussex Martyrs. Stalwarts of the community, the family are "very well respected here." There's a monument to them in the graveyard. Someone has even left the Burning Girls all around it, symbols of the young girls, Abigail and Maggie, who took refuge in the chapel. Rumor has it that their ghosts still haunt the area, appearing to those in trouble: "if you see the burning girls, something bad well befall you."

Blood is central to the story, along with exorcism and the release from prison of a mystery narrator who is somehow connected to Jack. Free after 14 years, he follows the trail to Nottingham, no longer the substance-addicted young man who spent most of his twenties in and out of prison for various petty crimes. From a strange parcel and the strange events of Chapel Croft to a girl called Poppy and mercurial teenager Wrigley - her face streaked with blood, his jerky progress like "Edward Scissorhands" - Tudor rachets up the tension. Is Wrigley friend or foe? He has the same kind of awkward clockwork motion, and his attraction to Flo links up all of Tudor's narrative threads.

Jack finds herself at the center of a random series of unpredictable events: "why did I agree to come here? What do I hope to achieve?" A fresh day certainly brings new challenges. Flo keeps her secrets: "she's like her mum who never talks about her family." Flo has always been happier on the outside looking in. When Flo sees a girl on fire, without a head or arms, she convinced she's seen "the burning girls" that still haunt the chapel. Meanwhile, Jack struggles to understand the nefarious circumstances behind Reverend Fletcher's death. Was his suicide the result of an illicit relationship or blackmail? Was he conflicted by his faith? Jack can't seem to find words as her mind becomes muddy, disorganized, as though coming to Chapel Croft has "shaken lose all the bits that she normally keeps carefully in place."

Perhaps it's all folklore or urban legend, simple "rubbish." Flo isn't prone to flights of fancy; she's pragmatic, sensible, reasoned - "what's the alternative, some kind of apparition?" The grisly discovery in the floor of the chapel, where darkness presses in on either side, puts Jack and Flo in danger of their lives. And what actually happened to the two fifteen-year-olds, best friends who disappeared without a trace? Perhaps local journalist Mike knows the truth. His daughter died two years ago, and her body is buried in the Chapel's graveyard.

Though the novel is sometimes weighed down by the characters' warped senses of perception, the narrative moves quickly toward revelations around Fletcher's sudden death and the mystery behind the girls' disappearance. In the process, Tudor spins a mostly edge-of-your-seat spectral tale of girls mutilated, abused and tortured as Jack and Flo, attempt to discover the truth about the burning girls, ghost-like and trailing flames.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at Michael Leonard, 2021

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