Book Review: The Vale Girl

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Author: Nelika McDonald
ISBN: 978-1-74261-242-3
RRP: $29.99

Nelika McDonald has written a heartbreaking and haunting debut that will be sure to have readers on the look out for her next offering, I know I will.

The Vale Girl is set in the small town of Banville, in the middle of nowhere. It is a picturesque and historic town that attracts many tourists, especially during the annual Grevillea Festival. The tourists flock to town and they see the quaint main street, and all of the festivities are held in the centre of town. This keeps the tourists in the centre of town, away from the seedier side of life in this small town.

I was drawn into the narrative right from the beginning, desperate to know what had happened, and never did I get close to working it out. There is so much going on in this small town of often small minded people that the scenarios are endless and McDonald’s style of storytelling is sure to keep you guessing.

Sarah Vale is a fifteen year old girl in a less than ideal home environment who is made to pay for the sins of her mother every day of her life. She is judged and isolated for things that are out of her control. Sarah has been raised solely by her mother and theirs is an extremely complicated relationship. Sarah loves her mother and she is now the one taking care of the house and the finances while trying to keep herself safe. Her mother is the towns only prostitute, and an alcoholic. She works from home and Sarah collects the money which puts her in the sometimes dangerous position of being propositioned.

Banville is one of those small towns where everyone knows everything, and if they don’t know the full story they know enough to make the rest up. Yet when Sarah goes missing it seems that no-one has any information that could help find her.

Tommy is Sarah’s only friend and he is facing struggles of his own. His father often goes away with no warning, no indication of where he’s going or when he’ll be back which leaves Tommy fending for himself. Tommy has lost his mother, his baby sibling and his father is often nowhere to be found. When Tommy finds that Sarah is missing too he is determined to find her, but there’s a heartbreaking part of him that feels responsible because everyone he’s ever loved has left him.

Sarah’s disappearance isn’t a high priority for the people of Banville, it’s much more important that the Grevillea Festival go off without a hitch. Now I know that a town that relies on tourist trade needs those tourist dollars, especially in very dry spells where the farmers aren’t doing as well as they would like. But it still seems so cold to put that before the life of a 15 yr old girl, regardless of your personal feelings for her.

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Tommy takes as much of an interest in the search for Sarah as the local Sergeant, often riding along with him. Sergeant Henson is relatively new to Banville and I think that goes a long way to helping him in this instance, he doesn’t have that same mentality as the rest of the town. He sees the way that the residents stay out of many situations because they don’t want to get involved – though it doesn’t stop them gossiping which I think is even worse. It also doesn’t help in situations where someone needs to step in.

McDonald has written all of these characters believably, whether they were likeable or not, and many of them are noticeably shaped by their backgrounds. Appearances are of the utmost importance which means prejudice runs rampant, especially with the women on the committees selling their town to the tourists.

Appearances play a big part in the way that the story unravels because for a long time all we know is what can be seen. The things going on in the back streets of town are unknown to us, as are quite important pieces of back story.

I think this is one I could read over and over, and pick up some new insight with every read.

It only takes one moment to change the course of your entire life, and as Sarah points out that moment often seems insignificant at the time. It isn’t until much later and on reflection that you can trace things back to that one moment in time.

McDonalds storytelling is beautifully descriptive allowing the landscapes to leap from the page, her narrative is engaging and littered with clues that lead us on a wild goose chase before we reach the close of the story – which is the beginning of a brand new story for our favourite characters.

Growing up in a private house of prostitution is not anyone’s idea of ideal but I don’t think that Sarah can be held responsible for that. There were reasons for everything Susannah did, many of them I can understand even if I don’t agree, and her main aim when it came to her daughter was to make her strong, to make her independent and to ensure she didn’t need anyone. Susannah succeeded in that and gave Sarah an understanding of where it all came from which is more than the townspeople knew, are cared to admit they knew.

Sarah’s circumstances were not of her choosing, this is what she was born into and she was making the best of it. She stayed out of the business side of her mothers business but controlled the financial side and yet the town judged her for the actions of her mother, they isolated her and looked down on her – often with disgust.

Tommy on the other hand, who was also largely left to his own devices, was sympathised with and pitied. Many of the people in town found ways to feed him without making it look like charity, it was something they could do to help out. It didn’t really help with those his age though and Sarah was his only friend. This story becomes as much his as it is Sarah’s as he learns a lot about himself, life, love, moving on and manages to make a change in his circumstances as well.

All of the characters, and the town, are written beautifully and for a debut novel Nelika McDonald has done an exemplary job. The Vale Girl depicts the beauty, the fragility and the resilience hiding behind the facade many people are all too ready to judge.

I will definitely be putting Nelika McDonald on my watch list.

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