I’m a long-time admirer of William Trevor. I like the way, as an outsider (a Protestant in Catholic Ireland, and someone who had moved often in his childhood), he observed the people around him and presented them accurately in his fiction. I like even more his ability to indicate that what we are seeing when we read his books is not all that’s there. Sometimes, there’s a curtain between what we see and what is just out of sight but every bit as real. Sometimes, instead of a curtain it’s the ground beneath us and we know that it could suddenly move and we’ll be staring into the abyss. Those are great gifts in a writer and you don’t come across them very often. They are present in Killing the Girl by Elizabeth Hill. Hill lets us know that there’s more to the story than she has shown us – and, just occasionally and just for a moment, she lets it emerge from the darkness and stand before us.
As a man, I didn’t feel entirely comfortable with the way men are dealt with in this book, and I don’t just mean that there are three deaths and all of them are male. What made me uncomfortable was the qualities the men shared: all three of them took so naturally to controlling the protagonist (Carol Cage, who tells her story in the first person) that it was clearly second nature, and one of them also beat her. I know it happens. I don’t like knowing it happens. I don’t like watching it. But it is very well done here.
Carol spends most of her life in the shade of others. She knows it’s possible to be happy, but it seems to be beyond her reach. She reaches a kind of settlement at the end, and she does it as the reader reaches a different kind of ending. I said that all of the deaths are male; the title of the book is Killing the Girl, but the girl who dies is the naïve twelve-year-old who lives inside Carol Cage’s head and it’s long past her time to leave us.
It’s a challenging read, but worth it, and easy enough because, about a quarter of the way in, I found it had become one of those fairly rare books that grab you and pull you inside to the point where you’re living inside them and you can’t stop reading even if you want to (which I did, at one point, because of the kind of men I was having to look at. And I didn’t like the picture on the cover one little bit). It’s a first novel and it isn’t perfect, but it’s close. I look forward to the next by this author.