The Wayward Girls by Amanda Mason: A gripping and unsettling thriller - book review -
Born amidst the wild beauty of Whitby and the North Yorkshire moors, Amanda Mason must have grown up with the tales and traditions of literary gothic…
So it’s hardly surprising that at the age of fifty-eight, this former teacher has turned to all those classic tropes for her stunning debut novel, a gripping and unsettling thriller that harnesses the allure of a forbidding landscape with a spine-tingling ghost story.
But The Wayward Girls proves to be much more than just a run-of-the-mill tale of ghostly goings-on… with its clever contemporary twist, its penetrating exploration of sibling and family relationships, and constantly shifting perspectives, this is a writer already ahead of the game.
As moving as it is chilling, Mason’s novel focuses on a bohemian family whose new life on a rented, rundown farm in the middle of nowhere in the scorching summer of 1976, turns into a nightmare of malign presences, dangerous games and a tragedy that will change their lives.
Brimming with emotional intensity, white-knuckle suspense, disturbing events, and an air of menace so sharp that it cuts through the pages like a knife, Mason’s first full-length novel delivers a deliciously dark and creepy atmosphere in Yorkshire-sized bucketloads.
Artist Joe Corvino and his wife Cathy have left behind the pressures of big city Leeds and moved their family of five children to Iron Sike Farm, an old house near Whitby, where Cathy aims to home-tutor her children and ‘live in tune with nature.’
But Joe, a man of mercurial moods, is struggling to work in his studio in the barn and as they are running out of money, he abandons them all and heads back to Leeds to find work. And instead of enjoying her simpler life, Cathy finds herself isolated and shunned by their neighbours.
Meanwhile, eldest teenage daughter Bee is feeling restless, bored and ‘suffocating’ in the summer heat, and her sensitive younger sister, Loo, can feel Bee’s frustration giving off ‘something like electricity, something unreliable, dangerous.’
The girls also share a bedroom and it’s there that they first hear the knocking… Loo senses something inside the walls, ‘something scratching, something trying to get in. Then she felt it, a sharp pinch, sharp enough to make her catch her breath.’
Soon unexplained noises and weird happenings in the house start to disturb all the family, intruding on their every waking moment and arousing the interest of both the local press and a team of ghost hunters.
In the present day, Loo, now divorcee Lucy Frankland, is visiting her mother Cathy, who has been diagnosed with early stage dementia and is living in a care home in Yorkshire where she learns that paranormal researcher Nina Marshall is eager to reinvestigate those long-ago events at Iron Sike Farm… with help from Cathy and Lucy.
Cathy is eager to talk but Lucy is not so sure about revisiting her childhood home. Nina, who has links to the original ghost hunters, is looking to discover the truth about the house and the people who lived there… but is Lucy ready to confront what really happened all those years ago?
Mason serves up plenty of terrifying moments as the Corvino family struggle to understand the events at the farm, and their impact on both the past and the present, but The Wayward Girls is also an incisive study of the pivotal relationship between Loo and Bee, and a mother and her daughters.
The fascinating parallels between the young and impressionable Loo of 1976, and the woman Lucy whose life and outlook has been moulded and scarred by those early years of childhood are portrayed with superb insight and precision.
The ambiguities of their relationship are reflected in the parallels between the ghost hunters who investigated the hauntings in that long, hot summer over forty years ago, and the modern day team who are determined to finally unearth the truth.
Full of exquisite familial complexity, mind-bending mystery, and paranormal suspense, The Wayward Girls is a powerful and accomplished first novel.
(Zaffre, paperback, £8.99)