Helena McEwen, Ghost Girl. 2004. Bloomsbury. Pp. 246. ISBN 0747562512. £12.99.

Reviewed by Djibril

The events of this book are 99% normal—that is to say neither futuristic nor supernatural. The protagonist is Catherine, a fourteen year old girl sent to a Catholic convent school after years of travelling the world with her diplomat parents. Occasional visits to her sister Very, an art student in London, are a welcome break from this oppressive atmosphere she finds herself in. On two or three occasions in the novel, Catherine sees things that are not in the real world, and there is no hint that this is metaphor, imagination, or psychosis.

In school, she sees the unnatural glint like a bright light in the eyes of Sister Felicity, the sadistic nun who needs to make someone feel ashamed and scared in every class, and who picks on the new girl so that the other pupils will laugh at her as well, and knows that she is not just testing her knowledge, but that "she wanted me to get it wrong" (22). Then again, in London, she sees an old man through the window of the college cafeteria, and is the only one to see the lizard tail "flicking out of the back of his coat as he walks" (154).

Catherine thus moves between two very different worlds. In London she goes out with her sister's friends, who include artists, punk musicians, homosexuals, and hermaphrodites; takes cocaine, learns about Nietzsche, misses the bus home from a night club, and eats oysters in a posh restaurant. Back at school she is the new girl, lonely and frightened, confused by the arbitrary, puritanical rules of the nuns, some of whom are wantonly cruel, and even the kindest and most human of them constantly reinforce the sense of guilt and sin that the convent is designed to instill. McEwen describes the atmosphere of the boarding school wonderfully, capturing the loneliness and cruelty, but also the humanity and loyalty of friends; both sadness and joy, and honesty.

One is left with a view of the school designed to break the girls' innocence and joy, the world of the nuns in which a girl's period is described as "your shame", and all questioning is "impertinence"; where punishments are meted out with no explanation of the crime to reinforce the sense that one is always innately guilty of something; where even talent is crushed as called "pride", where compassion is "overacting". But it is also the story of the girls' humanity, of their ability to rebel in small ways, to be true to their friends in the face of the cruellest nun, and to retain hope, and joy, and love.

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