Ghost Girls is the debut novel by Cath Ferla from Echo Publishing, the publisher that last year gave us Emma Viskic’s excellent Resurrection Bay. It’s primarily a mystery story, rather than suspense or thriller, though there are thriller elements in it.
The story centres around Sophie Sandilands, an English language teacher, resident in Sydney, who is of mixed Chinese-European heritage. Sophie has memories of her birth place, Hong Kong, and she has experience teaching English in China. With this background, she occupies a unique space in relation to her mostly Asian students and friends, many of whom work part-time in China Town, either in restaurants or in the sex trade.
Other relevant features of Sophie’s background are that her father was a private investigator and she herself has been involved in a missing persons case. These factors provide the motivation for Sophie to become more than a little involved in the death of one of her female students and the apparent disappearance of others. Along with her flatmate, Jin Tao, a local chef, she follows the trail of one missing girl, a trail that leads her into the dark alleys and seedy underworld of Sydney’s illegal strip clubs.
Ferla has a talent for evoking settings and, it seems, a passion for Asian food, and her portrayal of the sights, sounds and smells of this pocket of Sydney life is well realised. Often her descriptions are entwined with characterisation, such as her reference to Sophie and Jin Tao’s tea drinking:
Forget reading the tea leaves afterwards, Jin Tao could read her mood by her choice of brew: oolong was for the weight of the world. The dark amber hue and the burnt bitterness of the leaves worked as a catharsis, helping Sophie clear her mind and refocus her senses. (58)
Another skill is the deft way she refers to characters’ pasts, dramatising them with economy and giving us insight what shapes people’s choices in later life:
[His] childhood had been one of slinking away from things: first from his father’s hand and then from his mother’s sweet, fermenting alcoholic breath. At school he had hidden from the bullies with his head down and shoulders scrunched together. He’d walked along walls and slid around corners, spent lunchtimes in graffitied library carrels and free periods locked in toilet cubicles. (174)
Ferla touches on some sensitive cross-cultural areas, especially in relation to immigrant Chinese women’s participation in the local sex trade. Her treatment of this, at times very dark, subject matter isn’t voyeuristic or moralistic, but rather acknowledges the complexities attendant on these women’s choices.
One aspect of the narrative which, for me, threatened to fall down was Sophie’s motivation for taking the risks she took in her endeavour to solve the mystery of the girls’ disappearance. Information relating to her mother which strengthens and explains Sophie’s motivation came, for me, a little late. If I’d known it earlier, I would have been more understanding and sympathetic towards Sophie’s choices and actions, and I couldn’t see any strong narrative reason for the delay. This is also the reason, I’d hazard, that the novel didn’t quite work for me as either a thriller or a suspense, despite several thrilling moments: because I didn’t fully identify with Sophie and the reasons she was getting herself into such trouble – until rather late, I wasn’t as engaged emotionally as I might otherwise have been. On the plus side, this is also probably why I wasn’t put off by the violent sequences and could read them with relative detachment (something I don’t find easy to do with more suspenseful stories).
These reservations aside, I found Ghost Girls a very competent debut with an interesting mystery and a fascinating cultural setting; another excellent production from Echo Publishing.
Author: Cath Ferla
Title: Ghost Girls
Publisher and date: Echo Publishing, 2016
Review copy kindly supplied to me by the publisher.