Sawkill Girls, Claire Legrand (Katherine Tegan Books 978-0-06-269660-1, $17.99, 447pp, tp) October 2018.
Let’s talk about how to write a creepy book really, really well, shall we?
Claire Legrand’s Sawkill Girls utilizes an almost dream-like writing style to tell the converging stories of three teenage girls: Marion, Zoey, and Val. The girls live on the island of Sawkill Rock, a place of rolling horse farms, “houses like palaces,” and the occasional missing girl. Val is the queen of Sawkill, Zoey is the upstart, and Marion is the interloper. They all live on the island at a time of great change, when the beast who has squatted in the dark for decades, the “Collector,” has finally consolidated his power and is ready to break free. He just needs to eat a few more girls and he will be ready to go. He just needs to have them collected so he can have his last, most precious meals.
Yes, he eats them. Yes, there is blood. Yes, it is that kind of book.
As graphic as the book’s obvious violence can be, it only lasts for a few sentences. The true horror here is revealed through the gaslighting of its main characters and the callous manner in which young women are offered up as sacrifices by men to the monster. On Sawkill Rock, girls disappear, are ignored, are misunderstood, and then vanish into the barest of historic records. They believe themselves to be dangerously obsessed, to be hysterical, to be crazy. They are force-fed a legacy of victimization. Then Marion, Zoey, and Val stand up for themselves and everything changes.
The plot here is surprisingly straightforward: Marion arrives on the island as the daughter of the new housekeeper to the wealthy Mortimer family. Val Mortimer is the very definition of privilege, center of all that matters for the island’s teenagers, ruthless in her attention and demands. Zoey is the police chief’s daughter, determined to learn what happened to her best friend, the most recently disappeared. She is focused on Val with a single-mindedness that leads to self-destruction. These are our heroes.
As the novel shifts between the three perspectives, Legrand drips more and more of Sawkill’s terrors into the plot. Marion is battling psychic attacks that she can barely endure, Val harbors a ghastly secret, and Zoey is beginning to wonder if her father is actually a terrible stranger. Bit by bit they move towards each other as more girls go missing, the Collector becomes more bold, and Sawkill Rock itself begins to rise up in anger over the blood that saturates its ground. Through it all, Legrand’s language mesmerizes the reader, seducing them with a devilish lullaby that is impossible to resist and commands further immersion into this truly bewitching novel.
Sawkill Girls does have some conventional plot devices, most commonly when Zoey collects and tracks clues to find out what might have happened to her friend and the other missing girls. But this is also a novel where moths talk and spiders drop down from the trees by the hundreds and a monster can appear as a child or kindly doctor. Also – spoiler alert – a horse commits suicide. Thankfully, this death happens quickly.
Reading Sawkill Girls brought other books to mind, particularly The Walls Around Us by Nova Ren Suma, September Girls by Bennett Madison, Wild Beauty by Anna-Marie McLemore, and Innocence by Jane Mendelsohn. Like an expressionist painting, these authors lull readers into the harshness of their tales by painting them with long descriptive passages using beautiful language and languid pacing. But the stories they tell are as brutally intense as they come and linger long after the final page. Rest assured, Sawkill Girls is a masterpiece of Gothic fantasy; it is the nightmare of a monster coming for you in the night and the reality of men who historically have held the silken ropes that led so many young women to their deaths. I won’t forget this one for a long, long time.
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 2019 issue of Locus.
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