Review: The Lost Girls

9781921901058With The Lost Girls, Wendy James has produced a cleverly plotted, eloquently written page-turner that shores up her status as Australia’s queen of the domestic thriller.

I wouldn’t normally associate the word ‘domestic’ with anything thrilling. But James has a special talent for depicting everyday suburban lives and adding unexpected but entirely plausible drama. The suspense is driven not only by the characters’ predicaments, but by the fear that something like this could happen to us or someone we love.

 The Lost Girls pivots on the murder of fourteen-year-old ‘looker’ Angela Buchanan at the northern Sydney suburban beach of Curl Curl in 1978. At the time of her death, Angie is staying with her cousins, twelve-year-old Jane Griffin and her older brother, Mick, both of whom worship Angie in their own ways. Angie’s death remains a complete mystery until another young girl is murdered under similar circumstances six month’s later in King’s Cross. The murders remain unsolved, the girls believed to be victims of a serial killer dubbed ‘the Sydney Strangler’.
While The Lost Girls takes Angie’s murder as its premise, its preoccupation is with the long-term consequences for Jane and Mick, and their parents, Barbara, a hairdresser, and Doug, a cop, as well as the family of the second victim, teenage street kid Kelly McIvor.

When the story opens in 2010, Jane is married to her childhood sweetheart, Rob Tait, and their daughter, Jess, is in her first year at TAFE. Jane is in the process of closing down the antiques warehouse she took over from her grandfather. Her father has dementia and is living in a hospice, her mother is ‘coping poorly’, and her brother Mick, suspended from the police force with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, has moved back in with their mother following his divorce.

Jane knows the challenges she faces are ‘just standard mid-life experiences, not actual crises.’ But this doesn’t prevent her from wondering,

Why do I feel as if I’ve been left stranded, breathless and gasping like a fish on the shore, the tide receding inexorably behind me?

Perhaps in search of an answer to this question, she agrees to be interviewed by Erin Fury, who introduces herself as a radio producer doing a documentary on murders and their aftermath.

Jane is not the only family member who agrees to Erin’s interviews. Mick, Barbara and even Rob take the hot seat, each in turn shedding new light on the case as they reflect on the circumstances of Angie’s death. Erin turns out to have something more than a professional interest in the story, an ‘almost unbearable wondering’ that propels her search for the truth.

As more secrets come to light, members of both families of the lost girls are forced to confront the legacy of the past and to distinguish this from the choices they have in the present.

The Lost Girls taps into the most primal of a parent’s fears: that they will outlive their child. Jane reflects on this in the course of the novel:

Having Jess — loving Jess — made me understand just what it meant to lose a child. I felt vulnerable, exposed and, some days, panic-stricken. I knew that children died — and I knew what happened to their parents.

Until she became a mother herself, Jane had never understood the scope of Angie’s loss from her parents’ perspective. ‘But now, I understood that my survival hinged on another’s in a way I’d never imagined.’

Jane’s decision not to have any more children is a ripple effect of a murder more that took place more than a decade later. It a subtle notion, underpinned by a deep understanding of human psychology — and typical of James’ skill for breathing life into her characters.

There’s a lot of crime fiction that requires suspension of disbelief. But reading The Lost Girls, you are more likely to be nodding your head than shaking it.

One minor quibble: I could’ve lived without the epilogue. But I don’t like Hollywood endings either, and I know I’m in a minority there. I’ll be curious to see what other readers think.

The Lost Girls by Wendy James (2013) is published by Michael Joseph/Penguin Books and released 26 Feb 2014.

This review has been submitted as part of the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014.

Listen to my review of The Lost Girls on Radio National Books and Arts Daily here.

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About Angela Savage

Angela Savage is a Melbourne-based crime writer, who has lived and travelled extensively in Asia. Her first novel, Behind the Night Bazaar won the 2004 Victorian Premier's Literary Award for an unpublished manuscript. She is a winner of the Scarlet Stiletto Award and has thrice been shortlisted for Ned Kelly awards. Her third novel, The Dying Beach, was also shortlisted for the 2014 Davitt Award. Angela teaches writing and is currently studying for her PhD in Creative Writing at Monash University.
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14 Responses to Review: The Lost Girls

  1. Oh, Angela, this sounds wonderful! I already really like Wendy James’ work a lot, so I’d probably have read this one regardless. But your review has pushed it up on my TBR. I. Want. To. Read. This.

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  2. I’ve only skimmed this review because I’m eager to dive into my own copy of this one soon but I do agree with you that Wendy James seems to be able to take the ‘suburban’ or ‘domestic’ setting and make it realsitically scary…eyeing your neighbours in a more suspicious way kind of scary 🙂

    I will come back to read more fully when I have read the book

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  3. kathy d. says:

    Oh, what a tantalizing review! I will have to find a way to get this book from Oz, and read it sooner rather than later.
    A Wendy James book plus an Angela Savage recommendation! That makes it a must-read.

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  4. kathy d. says:

    I am enthusiastic! True! If I go to a meeting, which I like. I’m clapping and cheering, no shyness here. If I see a movie at home on dvd, the neighbors will know if I like it or not.
    I am now 3/4 way through Felicity Young’s Antidote to Murder, which became interesting and I now can’t put it down. And I’m recycling it to a 33-year retired ER nurse and she’ll love it.
    It’s just Hide the credit card when I come to certain blogs, or I hope I’ll get a sudden case of amnesia so I won’t remember to keep adding more books to the lists.
    As I say the only answer is: 24/7 reading with no sleep, no cooking or dishes, laundry, bill paying. We need these regularly!

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  5. Thanks for this review, Angela. I hadn’t heard of Wendy before but I checked out her work and I’ve just downloaded an earlier book of hers to my kindle, The Mistake. Looking forward to reading that one, then I might check out The Lost Girls. Great review.

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  6. Pingback: AWW2014 Crime Roundup #2 | Australian Women Writers Challenge

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