Manchester, 1960s. Sally, a cynical fifteen-year-old schoolgirl, is much too clever for her own good. When partnered with her best friend, Pamela – a mouthy girl who no-one else much likes – Sally finds herself unable to resist the temptation of rebellion. The pair play truant, explore forbidden areas of the old school and – their favourite – torment posh Sylvia Rose, with her pristine uniform and her beautiful voice that wins every singing prize.
One day, Sally ventures (unauthorised, of course) up to the greenhouse on the roof alone. Or at least she thinks she’s alone, until she sees Sylvia on the roof too. Sally hurries downstairs, afraid of Sylvia snitching, but Sylvia appears to be there as well.
I was drawn to reading this novel by the promise of a ghostly story, but it wasn’t at all what I expected. The novel is split into three parts: penumbra, umbra and anteumbra. All I understood from this and my teenage Latin lessons was that part two would be shadowy and opaque, umbra being the shadow cast during an eclipse. So the opening section would be the lead up to these events and this was the unexpected part. Birch begins her novel with an ordinary everyday tale of Sally’s school days. Set in Manchester in 1960’s, the author spends a lot of time setting up her characters and letting us get to know them. Sally and her best friend Pamela are fifteen years old and somewhat rebellious. Pamela is troubled and disliked by most of the pupils as well as Sally’s family, who are concerned about this girl’s influence over their daughter. There was a lot about this opening that I recognised from my own school days 20 years later; pushing the boundaries, forming friendships, first relationships and a bit of bullying. Together they bend the rules by playing hooky from P.E, climbing on the roof at lunchtime to smoke and eat their pack-ups and eating all the free samples in the food hall at Lewis’s Department Store. Like all girls of this age she is coping with the challenges of growing up, and has doubts about her first serious boyfriend, Rob. However, they really enjoy tormenting Sylvia Rose, an old-fashioned, slightly upper-class girl in their class who has a promising classical voice. Sally could have made a friend of Sylvia, because they do have some of the same interests, but instead she follows Pamela and makes fun of Sylvia. The girls do escalate, so some of their tricks go too far, leaving Sylvia humiliated in front of the entire school.
The girls are attracted by superstition and obtain a ouija board to secretly use during their breaks. The ouija board predicts a dark season approaching, but the girls do not want to believe it. They are also warned by one of their teachers, but the unthinkable does happens and the consequences could haunt Sally for the rest of her life. The author, slowly and cleverly, charts the course of these fun loving and boisterous girls as they become anxious and fearful young women. Since we’re told the story from Sally’s point of view, we get to know her best and her inner world is built. It is not easy to be a teenager, because we’re always in conflict and easily influenced by others through peer pressure. It’s a time when mistakes are made and we have to hope we don’t regret them forever. I was drawn to the novel because of the blurb that describes it as having “elements of the ghost story” and these all take place in the second part of the book. Rather than a ghost story, I would call suggest that there are uncanny or supernatural events within a story about adolescence and growing up. There is so much emotional energy around teenagers and that definitely plays into this story. The terrible tragedy that ensues will affect Sally badly, but also the whole school and in the final part of the book, set around twelve years later, the past really does start to haunt her. Sally returns to Manchester after working around the country and starts to re-connect with old school friends. the area where she grew up and reconnects with several of her old schoolmates. The pace picks up here and we’re definitely in “ghost story” mode, as the author really does use supernatural elements to terrify, quite effectively in parts. What’s most effective for me is that underlying ambiguity; do we take these events literally or does this narrator have some serious mental health issues?
Carol Birch’s novel is a clever combination of school tale, coming of age drama and ghost story. I think that readers coming to this for a straightforward ghost story, should be warned that the thrill and the fear do come, but not for a while. It’s a slow burn rather than a twisty, turny thriller that keeps readers on the edge of their seat. When the ghostly elements did come, they were effective and left me feeling a bit edgy, not knowing what was real and what was a figment of Sally’s imagination. There is a feeling of foreboding, something is going to turn out badly; but is that a ghostly payback or the just the product of Sally’s diseased imagination? The final part also has important reflections on mental health and the psychological aftershocks of grief. The haunting atmosphere will stay with you long after I turned the final page.