Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Book Review:
The Girl Below by Bianca Zander

Every once in a while you happen upon a novel where the main character is simultaneously unlikable yet sympathetic, all at the same time. In her novel The Girl Below, first-time author Bianca Zander has created exactly that character in Suki Piper. At thirty, Suki still doesn't have her stuff together -- she's immature, childish, unemployed, self-pitying. She's had a rough life -- but so have many other people, who seem able to keep their lives in some semblance of order.

For Suki, however, losing first her father (to a new wife and a new continent) and then her mother (to cancer) has proved too much for her to handle. After living in New Zealand for a decade, she's made the long trek back to her hometown of London to try life in Europe once again. Things don't begin quite as Suki would have liked -- perhaps in direct correlation to the effort she gives them.

At last Suki lands back where she needed to be all along, in her family's old apartment building. As she renews a bond to a family she's known since she was young, she is finally able to begin dealing with her demons -- and some of them are doozies.

Zander interjects a supernatural flair into The Girl Below, which creates twists and kinks in Suki's journey to become whole once again. At every step she moves forward, creepy happenings and fears hold her back. I enjoyed most of the haunting feelings the novel evokes, but towards the end, when the supernatural vibe became stronger than ever, I lost Zander's purpose a bit. Some bits are left a bit vague, which some readers like and I happen to not enjoy so much.

In spite of some of its drawbacks, the novel left me turning pages quickly to discover what happens next. Zander does an excellent job of creating the setting; both London and Auckland, New Zealand, fairly jumped off the page. While not always describing a flattering picture of the two cities, Zander seems faithful to building a definite sense of place in the novel. I love when the setting seems to almost be an unnamed character in novels, and Zander accomplished that in The Girl Below.

Although I found myself frustrated with Suki much of the time, she is a character I felt immense sympathy for, and one I ended up rooting for throughout the novel. I wanted desperately for her to find whatever she was seeking -- and although she makes plenty of missteps, I believe in the end she does exactly that. While The Girl Below is dark in many places, in the end it is a book of hope, both for Suki and in general.

Bianca Zander, who has roots both in Britain and New Zealand, has had a successful career as a journalist. She has also been dabbled in radio production work and in writing for film and television. She wrote the film The Handover, which was viewed at the Chicago Film Festival. The Girl Below is her first novel. You can find Zander on Facebook and on Twitter.

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