Shadow Girl

Shadow Girl was written by Liana Liu and first published in 2017. It is a work of contemporary fiction which focuses on a teenage girl’s experiences while tutoring the eight-year-old daughter of a wealthy businessman. The novel stands alone, so you don’t have to read any of the author’s other work to fully appreciate it.

Mei has always striven to be a good girl. Since her father walked out on them and her brother turned to drink and petty theft, she has taken it upon herself to do everything that she can to make her mother’s life easier. Since she has always had a way with children, Mei spends her free time tutoring youths to help pay the bills.

When Vanessa Morison, wealthy wife of a famous business man, hires her to be the summer tutor for her daughter, Mei is initially reluctant. The job will mean leaving home for two months to live with the Morisons on their vast island estate. However, Vanessa is offering to pay her a fortune and Mei really can’t pass up the opportunity to earn so much money.

However, Mei might have bitten off more than she can chew. The Morisons are not the easiest people to live with – especially Vanessa’s stepson, Henry. Eight-year-old Ella is also not what Mei was expecting. The girl is shy and withdrawn, and it’s not long before Mei learns why. Ella is visited every night by the disturbed ghost of Eleanor Arrow – a previous inhabitant of the mansion. It’s not long before Mei also begins to see the spirit. Could it be that Eleanor is real, or is she just a symptom of a bigger problem on the island…

If you come into Shadow Girl expecting a supernatural thriller, I think that it’s very likely that you will be disappointed. Despite what you might have gleaned from the blurb, there aren’t too many ghosts to be found in this story. Eleanor only makes her presence known sporadically throughout the tale, often going for many chapters without even being mentioned. Ultimately, it isn’t clear if there is a ghost at all. If you’re looking for a horror story, I would recommend looking elsewhere.

In actuality, Shadow Girl is a novel about class boundaries, affluence and family. It follows a girl from a poor background who has a deep-rooted loyalty to her mother as she finds herself living with a family that is the complete opposite. The novel spans two months of summer break as Mei faces obstacles that are far less spiritual – difficulties finding common ground with Ella, her growing attraction towards Henry, her involvement in the life of the family, and her decision over where she should go to college.

However, for a professionally published novel, Shadow Girl had a lot of issues. While not terribly written, the story also didn’t feel especially well polished. There is a clumsiness to Liu’s writing that I found very distracting, almost as though she did not feel confident in writing a book for teen readers. The dialogue that Mei used in her first-person narrative felt very simplistic. Although Mei was supposedly an educated person, her sentences were always short and riddled with adverbs.

Yet, despite the simplicity, Mei’s trail of consciousness was not always the easiest to follow. Her observations could sometimes be amusing, but the reactions of the people that she encountered during the tale sometimes felt forced or irrational. Take for example, this paragraph:

“The path goes directly past the lighthouse, and because my son hasn’t maintained it at all, the structure is extremely unsound. It could collapse at any time,” he says. His voice is low. Raspy. Angry. A moment later, he excuses himself and heads back to the house.

This may not seem odd on its own, but Mr. Morison wasn’t actually angry before this point. In fact, less than a page before he was chuckling about a joke he had made. So why did talking about the lighthouse suddenly flip his angry switch? Your guess is as good as mine. This novel contained some of the most mercurial characters I’ve ever encountered.

The plot could be very slow in places and I sometimes found myself losing interest. While the novel drew me in by promising untrustworthy businessmen and spectral visitation, the middle portion of the story was completely unfocused. Here, Mei leaves the island and returns to her home in the city for about sixty pages. This largely derails the plot, as she has very little to do with the Morisons over this time.

But the problems were not just confined to this. The plot of the novel is quite difficult to define as it has no clear structure. Shadow Girl does not have a clear beginning, middle and end. It is just a series of small events that lead up to a surprise birthday party. Throughout the early novel, it is heavy implied that this party is a bad idea and something will go horribly wrong. This, alone, kept me reading. Unfortunately, this promise of disaster didn’t really pay off. The story just kind of dissolves after this event, slipping away into a weak epilogue that felt rather open-ended on the whole.

The one saving grace of Shadow Girl was its protagonist. Mei is a greatly complex character and I did feel a lot of sympathy towards her. While she was by no means perfect, I could really feel the pull of her sense of duty towards her depressed mother versus the resentment that she feels towards being the only one who can support her. The scars of Mei’s childhood run very deeply and its clear how her present-day hang-ups are still largely the result of her absentee father. Mei’s gradual acceptance and attempts to overcome these issues form the crux of her development over the course of the novel.

Unfortunately, the rest of the cast don’t receive anywhere near this level of care. Up until a set point in the plot, it does feel that Mei’s presence is changing the Morisons for the better. Henry is calming down, Ella is opening up and Vanessa is starting to appreciate her daughter for who she is. However, after a certain crucial event, this development just crumbles away. The characters forget everything that they have learned and return to their starting positions. This was, in a word, weak. I was left with the distinct impression that no lessons had been learned. This frustrated me no end as it made a whole chunk of the story feel entirely pointless.

Anyhow, I think that’s about all that I have to say. If you’re a fan of supernatural stories, you will certainly be disappointed by Shadow Girl. While it promises a ghostly tale, this really doesn’t factor much into this novel. However, if contemporary fiction is more your thing, there are also far better books than this out there. Shadow Girl is slow, clumsy and has a cast that are not especially memorable. This certainly isn’t a novel that I would recommend.

Shadow Girl can be purchased as a Hardback on Amazon.co.uk

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© Kim Dyer and Arkham Reviews, 2019. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kim Dyer and Arkham Reviews with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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