The Hollow Girl, Hillary Monahan (Delacorte 978-1-5247-0186-4, $17.99, 272pp, hc) October 2017.
Author Hillary Monahan takes readers into the world of the Romany people in this brutal blending of realistic fiction and fantasy. Set at some point of the Welsh past (there are no mentions of electronic devices or cars), The Hollow Girl follows the story of Bethan and her grandmother, Drina, the clan’s revered and fearsome wise woman. While Drina mixes herbal potions for all manner of physical and mental ills, Bethan sells them at a booth in the nearby town marketplace. She loves her prickly grandmother and her clan, but is uncertain about her future. The bigger problem, though, is that Bethan has caught the eye of the clan’s teen bully, the chieftain’s spoiled son, and Silas is determined to have her no matter what.
Monahan builds the tension from the first pages as Bethan must repeatedly duck Silas and his gang. A young man at the market, Martyn, befriends her and is soon drawn into the conflict as well. Frustrated by her constant rebuffing of his increasingly aggressive advances, Silas and his friends resort to violence. Bethan is raped (the assault is portrayed off the page), and Martyn beaten nearly to death. When Drina arrives she is able to capture Martyn’s last breath, which allows for the potential of powerful magic to save his life. Using such magic requires a hefty price, however: a price paid in flesh and blood that Bethan must be willing to extract.
It will come as no surprise just who is going to have to give up a piece of themselves in order to complete the spell. Several reviewers have characterized what Bethan does to the four boys who attacked her as revenge, but I did not see it that way. She is angry (and Monahan portrays that fury brilliantly), but more importantly she is driven to save the young man who sacrificed everything to save her. It is not for retaliation that Bethan goes after her monsters, it is because, for the person she is, this is the only choice. Bethan will not accept the loss of Martyn, and readers will agree that there is no reason why she should.
Monahan offers a personal introduction to the novel where she shares a bit of her Romany heritage and why she chose to write this particular story so steeped in her ethnicity. In some ways the novel is deeply about being Romany, in others hardly at all. The primary conflict is within Bethan herself, in what she is willing to do to save a decent young man and in how she channels her anger so that it does not consume her. Do not doubt that this narrative journey is savage and not for the faint of heart. But as Bethan’s pain and Drina’s outrage forces their clan to turn the mirror on themselves, the true meaning of what it means to be Romany comes to the forefront. They must listen to their better angels, even when the messenger is wrapped in a cloak of violence. Hillary Monahan has done some powerful writing here and Bethan is downright unforgettable.
Colleen Mondor, Contributing Editor, is a writer, historian, and reviewer who co-owns an aircraft leasing company with her husband. She is the author of “The Map of My Dead Pilots: The Dangerous Game of Flying in Alaska” and reviews regularly for the ALA’s Booklist. Currently at work on a book about the 1932 Mt. McKinley Cosmic Ray Expedition, she and her family reside in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. More info can be found on her website: www.colleenmondor.com.
This review and more like it in the March 2018 issue of Locus.