Slow and Steady: Reading The Tenth Girl

One of the downsides of being an aggressively voracious reader is that you tend to read quickly. Words tend to flow in a certain way, after all, and so it’s too easy for me to grab the important bits of a sentence and move on. It’s not quite skimming, but it’s a lot like gulping a meal: you can lose the taste even if you still get the nutrition.

So I am going to experiment with deliberately slowing down. I have The Tenth Girl by Sara Faring in my hands. (thank you public library!) For whatever reason, I’ve been wanting to read this book for a while. But I am not going to read it in one sitting or even one day. I am going to read it a few chapters at a time–for one thing, the writing deserves it. For another, this book is going to be a different read than I expected. The blurb made it seem like a fairly straight-forward haunted house saga. It’s not.

To keep myself honest about not rushing through, I’m going to blog the chapters piecemeal.

There’s a prologue. I have mixed feelings about prologues. Sometimes they just feel like the equivalent of cold opens on formulaic tv shows. This is especially true of the serial killer thriller genre. I always skip those prologues. I also skip a lot of the YE OLDE EPIC FANTASY prologues where the events take place thousands of years before and involve a prophecy. I’m certain I’ll hear about them again.

But the prologue to The Tenth Girl is an elegant, enjoyable little snippet. Is it necessary? Not strictly so, I don’t think. It mostly just tells us that there’s a school that was shuttered and is now opening again. But it’s got lovely original feeling details – the giant-handed matriarch who eats a dozen raw eggs every morning, the school on a shelf of rock where ice fields meet salt mountains – it’s all evocative. And it’s short! I liked it, and it made me relax into the book. The author, it seems to say, knows what she’s doing with her words.

Chapter one introduces us to Mavi, the main character (according to the blurb) and her dire straits. And they are dire! Her mother one of los desparecidos, a citizen abducted and murdered by her own government. Mavi is being sought. She’s 18 and effectively friendless, so she lies and takes a job as the 20-something English teacher at the reopening Vaccaro school. Here, again, Faring show us the tone of the book. Matters, she shows us, are going to be endlessly difficult. Mavi is dropped off at the wrong dock, climbing the wrong steps, arriving unnoticed, and unwelcomed. Trapped outside the school. We haven’t even gotten to the haunting and here are three separate horror stories: the government turning on its own, turning citizen against citizen; the horror of unexpected loss, her mother vanished with no hope remaining; and the weird nightmarish sensation of being locked out and alone.

Even when she gets inside, she faces the lesser conflict of an unsympathetic administrator, and is sent to bed hungry–a childish punishment for an adult. Her introduction to the school is nightmarish even before the atmosphere of the house kicks in. I love it! The writing is lovely. So many little perfect details, and Mavi’s personality shining through.

“…The door is an iron wall as impenetrable as a bank vault, and the door knocker is shaped like an unsmiling woman’s head–she’s understandably upset, I suppose, that visitors will slam her head for all eternity. I paste a jagged, fake smile on my face and knock with her. Then knock again. Politely.

… I chuck pebbles at the carious windows as the gargoyles chuckle at me; they know I’m a runner with nowhere to run to, pitiful prey.

It’s the truth: …my safe havens only exist in memory, and my memory’s poor, a winding montage of half-repressed sights and smells, pulled from a life I feel no ownership of. But I better kill that thought. If I think about my past too long, my mind unravels.”

The Tenth Girl, p 8-9

Then comes chapter two, and suddenly this is a very different book than I thought it was. We jump from Mavi in 1978 to Angel in 2020-0, though she’s more spirit than flesh and she’s a witness to Mavi’s arrival in 1978. We’re getting topsy-turvy with time. Angel is old and the United States is a wreck and global warming has wiped away the Patagonian ice sheets (and presumably the school perched before them.) Angel says she’s old but she sounds like a younger woman, which kind of bugs me, but I’ll see how it plays out. Angel is very full of pop culture references – whitewalkers, RPGs, He-who-must-not-be-named.

She flits through the past like a mostly-benign ghost, but is conscious of Others lingering malignantly in the shadows. Another young teacher at the school senses her, and she flees–afraid that Yesi won’t be rightfully afraid of the Others if she interacts with Angel.

Angel is a conundrum. While Mavi seems to have trauma making her mental state somewhat chaotic, Angel seems to be more unreliable. Even her name is fractured. She’s Angel, calls herself El, remembers her mother speaking to her as “Maria Eugenia”. Those could all be her names, but as a reader, I’m always on the lookout for a character with multiple names. They’re usually complex.

So, yeah, ghost novel, with time-traveling spirits guided by Charon to poke around in an old school that has, actually, been cursed. That’s new!

I allowed myself one more chapter after the surprise of chapter two. I wanted to see if I was going to get another POV or what. But we’re back to Mavi and her troubles. More of her traumatic past is revealed–and an ideological rift between her and her mother who was using her position as a professor to draft students to her guerilla cause. Even if the cause is just, there’s something Mavi finds unethical about adding to their ranks from the young students.

Mavi meets Yesi who shows her where the snack foods are and gives her the low down on the scene. Prosaic information but delivered in an appropriately atmospheric way. Anyway, I can set the book down for the night, because yay, Mavi made a friend.

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