The Tenth Girl, Sara Faring (Imprint 978-1-250-30450-6, $18.99, 464pp, hc) September 2019.
Sara Faring’s The Tenth Girl is a 1970s Gothic thriller filled with horrifying ghosts in an isolated Argentinian boarding school during the “Dirty War” when 30,000 civilians were disappeared at the hands of the US-backed military government. Eighteen-year old Mavi never knew her father, her rebel mother was recently arrested and hauled away with no hope of return, and now the police are after her. With counterfeit documents provided by a family friend she has latched onto her only hope for survival: a position as English teacher at the remote all-girls Vaccaro School in Patagonia. The school has only recently reopened after decades of abandonment following a dark and tragic episode. It sounds like the perfect place to hide, and so Mavi gratefully takes her chance. What she finds is a mash-up of Hogwarts and Lois Duncan’s classic Down a Dark Hall: lots of dramatic castle walls hiding something hungry that invades your dreams.
Spoiler Alert: Nothing in this book is what it seems.
At Vaccaro, Mavi is quickly overwhelmed by the school’s nine sullen young students who exhibit little interest in learning. One of the girls bears a shocking resemblance to a former classmate of Mavi’s who died violently years earlier, which immediately puts the young teacher on edge. She also is admonished by the administrative head to never leave her room at night, finds the school’s owner (and descendant of the original Vaccaros who ran it) to be startlingly abrupt, and the owner’s son to be attractive but hostile. Her fellow teachers are varying degrees of friendly if odd and the tenth girl, the last student on the roster, is kept away in her room, too ill to attend class. All in all, Vaccaro School is a decidedly weird place, but Mavi has no other choice. If the government finds her, she will disappear just like her mother. She has to stick it out and get paid at the end of term. In the meantime she resolves to make the best of things, which is easier said than done when the ghost (or is it the tenth girl?) starts to appear.
Lest you think all of this is not enough to keep the pages turning, Mavi’s story is not the only one that Faring tells. In alternate chapters she writes about Angel, an apparent ghost who is trapped at the school and deeply disturbed by the “Others,” very scary “things” who appear to be attacking the staff and students in their sleep. Angel follows Mavi and eventually learns to possess Domenico Vaccaro, the owner’s son. In this way Angel befriends Mavi and they begin to discuss the otherworldly goings-on in the school. As the students all begin to fall dangerously ill Mavi and Angel delve into the school’s history and brush up against some ugly aspects of Argentina’s past. The other teachers start to exhibit strange behavior and even disappear. Finally Mavi resolves to make a break for it, but by then it is too late and when Angel’s secret is revealed everything the reader thinks they know about the school blows apart, and Faring delivers the mother of all twist endings. Seriously – you will not see this one coming, and it transforms the book into something even more incredible than it has been all along.
Faring does a bang-up job establishing an atmosphere of foreboding and the claustrophobia that Vaccaro School induces becomes increasingly alarming with each chapter. The tension ratchets up page-by-page, and the questions raised by Angel’s existence, what is attacking the students, and why Madame Vacarro and her administrator will not acknowledge how bad the situation has become all reach a fever pitch and then the twist arrives. Faring, who is Argentine American, deserves high praise for pulling off such a good story and holding the twist together while also highlighting a dark period of Argentina’s history. I was completely immersed in The Tenth Girl and look forward to more from this author.
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 November 2019 issue of Locus.
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