Saturday, 9 December 2017

Book Review: The Girl Next Door by Jack Ketchum

In 1950s suburban America, two teen girls are left in the care of their aunt following the death of their parents. The story is told through the eyes of David, the boy who lives next door and who is witness to the escalating abuse and torture that these girls endure at the hands of the aunt and the rest of the children in the neighbourhood. 

"My mom says Meg's the lucky one," he said. "My mom says she got off easy."

First of all, I need to explicitly warn potential readers that this book is very graphic and detailed, and it is NOT for the faint of heart. That being said, I can categorically state that this is the most brutal, disturbing, upsetting, traumatising book that I have ever read. I did not enjoy reading this book, it made me angry, upset, and downright incredulous that people are capable of such inhumane actions, because this is not just some sick and twisted idea that Ketchum came up with, it it based on a true story. For those who are not familiar, this case is based on the murder of Sylvia Livens at the hands of Gertrude Baniszewski and her children/kids in the neighbourhood. I read up on this case after finishing the book and somehow the events that actually happened are even worse.

Ketchum's writing in this is not flowery and beautifully written - it is full of short and abrupt sentences that just cut right to the chase. And this suits the type of story that he is trying to tell and the reaction that he is trying to provoke. And boy, does he succeed. It's not an easy read by any means, at times I just wanted to shut the book and throw it in the bin - but it's also an important book, because these things DO happen. People DO torture children (and adults for that matter). But at the same time, in the light of such acts of violence and human depravity, we need people who will act out against it. Granted, not everyone wants to read about it, but I think it's something we all need to be aware of. Sometimes not doing anything is almost as bad as those taking part in such crimes.

David is an interesting character, we learn everything that happens through his recollection of events. Although he never actually partakes in any of the abuse, is he complicit because he is aware of it, even though he is only a 12 year old boy? At times I just wanted to scream at him to tell someone, to tell his parents, but he goes through a range of different thought processes - from not thinking he's doing anything wrong as he PHYSICALLY isn't doing anything, to considering the fact that maybe Meg deserved it, to getting mixed up with his pre teen sexual angst and curiosity. The girl who bore the brunt of the abuse, Meg, is heroic in my eyes. She endures abuse and torture that you cannot even fathom, and yet she manages to hold onto her dignity - no matter how much they try to take it away from her. Any opportunity where she is close to giving in, all they need to do is threaten her sister and Meg will endure whatever they put her through. How I cried for this young girl. 

Rating this book was tough, as I cannot say I "enjoyed it". However, I found it hard to stop reading, and it evoked such a strong emotional reaction in me that can only be gained from solid writing and a well-executed story, with empathetic characters (in this case, Meg and her sister). It's a powerful book, one of the most powerful I've ever read, and Ketchum has achieved exactly what he set out to do: to horrify. 5 stars.


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