The day before the house on Princess Street was due to be demolished, Mandy Crystal stood by the wire fence, looking through it. … The windows and front door of the house had been removed and she could glimpse into the shady interior. It wasn’t the first time she had looked through the windows of this house. The inside had been dark and gloomy even then, when someone had been living in it.
It was getting dark and the sky looked bruised. The autumn sun had slipped away, leaving streaks of pink in its wake. Mandy sighed and made to leave but something caught her eye. She turned, and saw two discs of red floating in the air, near the roof. She peered at them more closesly and saw brilliant red circles undulating one way and then the other. It was a pair of helium balloons tied together with ribbon. … She focused on them until their edges blurred and they looked like poppies waving about in the breeze.
Five years earlier, Mandy saw her two closest friends, Petra and Tina, walk into the house on Princess Street and no one has seen them since. That same night, the old man who lived in the house was found murdered and his killer remains at large.
Now eighteen, Mandy remains traumatised and wracked with guilt over the disappearance of her friends:
The Moth Girls. She hadn’t thought of that phrase for years. It gave her an unpleasant feeling. She hadn’t liked it at the time. She didn’t like moths. They made her shiver. They came into her room on a summer night and were sucked towards the light, sometimes throwing themselves against lampshades, making scuttling noises with their wings. They were dark and hairy-looking, and sat on walls in high-up places where they couldn’t be shooed away. They only seemed to come out when it was dark, stealthy and foreboding.
However, while the police assume Petra and Tina witnessed the old man’s murder and were taken (and presumably killed) by his killer, their disappearance is far more complex than it first appears.
The narrative alternates between eighteen-year-old Mandy reflecting on her friendship with Petra and Tina in the lead up to their disappearance and twelve-year-old Petra in the months, weeks and days before she and Tina enter the house on Princess Street.
Anne Cassidy’s Moth Girls (Bonnier Publishing, Dec. 2015) is a tightly-written thriller, full of hairpin twists and unexpected reveals, but also a story about female friendships and bullying in which nothing is quite what it seems.
I read a lot of Young Adult titles and a lot of psychological thrillers, but I’ve only recently started delving into YA thrillers, and oh boy, am I loving this sub-genre! (Definitely going to be reading more in 2016: watch this space.) I love them because they tend to use the tight, economic language of YA and, because they’re targetted at teen readers, the twists tend to be creative and unexpected (unlike a lot of adult psychological thrillers—particularly the dometic thrillers that have been so popular in recent years—they generally avoid using sex/sexual abuse/extramarital affairs as the key motive behind the crime).
In Moth Girls I particularly liked that Cassidy uses the mystery of the girls’ disappearance as a vehicle for examining the characters’ friendship. When Mandy first meets Petra and Tina in the months before they disappear, she’s very much the third wheel of their little group. And I felt sorry for her: she’s the new girl in school, she’s shy and eager to be liked and attaches herself to Petra and Tina even though they’re not particularly inclusive—it’s that or be alone:
It was an unequal friendship, as if Petra and Tina were in a boat and Mandy was holding onto the side of it, just keeping her head above the waves. She didn’t mind the battering, she was just grateful that they let her stay there.
Following their disappearance, Mandy finds herself adrift, and her story is as much about moving on and learning self-acceptance rather than seeking validation from others as it is learning what happened to her friends.
In Mandy’s sections of the narrative, Petra comes across as a bully; Tina is happy to accept her into their group, but Petra wants Tina to herself. However, things look very different from Petra’s perspective, and the reader learns that Petra’s life is, in fact, far less glamorous and more complex than Mandy ever imagines, and that her decision to explore the house on Princess Street is motivated by more than a childish dare.
Moth Girls is a well-paced, character-driven thriller with tightly-controlled tension that makes for a truly compelling read.
Thank you to Bonnier Publishing for providing a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.
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