Wednesday, 11 January 2017

Book Review: SECRETS OF SOUTHERN GIRLS by Haley Harrigan

Secrets of Southern Girls

Title: Secrets of Southern Girls
Author: Haley Harrigan
Publisher: Sourcebooks Landmark
Read: January 2017
Expected publication: 1 June 2017

Synopsis (Goodreads):

Ten years ago, Julie Portland accidentally killed her best friend, Reba. What's worse is she got away with it. Consumed by guilt, she left the small town of Lawrence Mill, Mississippi, and swore nothing would ever drag her back. Now, raising her daughter and struggling to make ends meet in Manhattan, Julie still can't forget the ghost of a girl with golden hair and a dangerous secret.

When August, Reba's first love, begs Julie to come home to find the diary that Reba kept all those years ago, Julie's past comes creeping back to haunt her. That diary could expose the shameful memories Julie has been running from, but it could also unearth the hidden truths that Reba left buried…and reveal that Julie isn't the only one who feels responsible for Reba's death. 

My thoughts:

Secrets of Southern Girls tells the story of a friendship between two teenage girls, Reba and Jules, who are growing up in the small mill town of Lawrence, Mississippi. Jules sees her friend as pure and innocent, oblivious to the secrets Reba is keeping from her. Secrets, which would surely destroy their friendship. But secrets have a way of revealing themselves in little innocent remarks, chance encounters, routines broken. Soon Reba’s worlds collide, ending in terrible tragedy – an event that will haunt Jules throughout her adult life. Too traumatised at the time, she has only sketchy memories of the incident, and guilt has been her constant companion since. With too many questions unanswered, she agrees to Reba’s old boyfriend’s request to look for Reba’s diary to be finally be able to find out the truth and put her demons to rest.

Secrets of Southern Girls is both a coming-of-age story and a mystery of sorts, as Jules (now Julie) is trying to find out whether she really killed her best friend on that fateful day decades ago, and the events leading up to it. Harrigan skilfully sets the atmosphere of the small mill town, and I got a good sense of the small town politics and relationships that shape the girls’ lives.

My biggest gripe with the book are the chapters that read “Reba’s diary” – it is a pet hate of mine when authors use the diary perspective in a novel, in a way no one would ever write a real diary. Reba is a teenage girl consumed by the lust and passion of first teenage love, and yet her diary reads like a literary work, dialogue and all. I was a teenager once, given to passionate and woeful outpourings into the pages of my diary (which makes me laugh today), full of my own importance and seeing my small problems as disasters of epic scale. This is what I would expect from Reba, who is so consumed with her first experiences with boys and sex that these form the centre of her whole universe. If you have to involve a diary, it would be better to offer small, cryptic excerpts in the style of teenage writing, and then flesh these out and explain them through narrative from Reba’s point of view. But titling whole chapters “Reba’s diary” just did not ring true. This may be petty, but it irked me, as did the constant chopping and changing between the so-called diary and Julie’s story, which made it a confusing read. Ok - rant over.

Secrets of Southern Girls is a slow moving story, with the mystery at its centre not quite compelling enough for me to keep me interested. Seeing that Julie’s main concern was that she was somehow involved in her friend’s death, I did not fully understand the importance of the diary to her – since her friend would not have been able to write about her own death from the afterlife, those final moments would still remain a mystery. That aside, I found it difficult to bond with either character, although Reba’s discovery of her own sexuality at times was sensitively drawn and authentic, especially in the scenes with Toby (who was by far my favourite character as he had the most authentic voice of all the characters – unlike the other characters, I was able to visualise him clearly). I was often confused by different characters’ motives for some of their actions, for example Nell, who held on to the diary knowing that there were at least two characters consumed with guilt due to unanswered questions – why? This outlines my quintessential struggle with the book: I found it extremely difficult to visualise or understand its characters. The often stilted dialogue and ambiguous motives and thought processes of all protagonists always seemed to keep me at arms’ length, and I never bonded with any of them. They just lacked spark. Seeing that this is Harrigan’s debut novel, these issues may be ironed out in future novels, so I will definitely give the author another go.

Thank you to Netgalley and the publisher for providing me with a free electronic copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review. 

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