The gully looks bottomless tonight. Some say Hannah Holt is buried in the gully, her uneasy spirit slipping from crevice to shadow, sniffing for fear, and when she smells it she’ll pull you down by the ankles with her teeth. We all know the stories are spread by grown-ups to keep us away from the quarry, but this is the first time I’ve ever thought about Hannah Holt, or William Dean, before I’ve crossed. I can’t help wondering whether he closed his eyes when he jumped, or met the rocks with them wide open.
Ballad for a Mad Girl is a fantastic genre-bending read. It is part contemporary, part thriller, part murder mystery, part supernatural horror. Just when I thought I was getting comfortable in the direction the novel was going, Vikki Wakefield changed the tempo.
Two years have passed since Grace Foley’s mother was hit and killed by a car. It is not the first tragedy to befall the small country town of Swanston, as teen Hannah Holt mysteriously disappeared twenty-three years prior, rumoured to be at the hands of Willliam Dean. Rumour has it that William hid her body down the local quarry, the same quarry where he would later fall to his death.
The Foley family have moved from the family farm to a house in town, and seventeen-year-old Grace is struggling with the rules her suffocating yet distant father has set, which do not seem to apply to her brother Cody, despite the fact that he is only three years older than her. Everything around her is changing – her friends, her family, her sense of self. She clings to her reputation as the town prankster and record holder for the fastest crossing at the quarry. But after a death-defying crossing goes wrong, Grace finds herself haunted by a ghost, the presence of which brings up a renewed sense of grief for her mother. With her reputation as the town prankster ensuring no one will believe her, Grace is forced to go it alone to uncover why she is being haunted.
Grace is a highly emotionally evocative narrator to follow. She considers herself to be the hero and saviour of her group of friends, which includes Gummer, Amber, Pete and Kenzie.
We were leftovers. Only it didn’t feel that way. It felt like we chose each other carefully, to make sure all our odd shapes fitted together.
Grace is established as an unreliable narrator, as Kenzie argues that she wasn’t saved by Grace when they became friends. Amber and Gummer both question whether they have outgrown their predetermined roles in the group. While offering brief moments of introspection, Grace largely responds with anger and defiance – clashing with and hurting her friends, and upping the ante on her pranks. It would be easy to just be angry with Grace, but at the heart of her rage lies fear that Wakefield has beautifully understated – fear that her friends are moving on without her. While the quote on the back of the book, At this rate I won’t survive high school. I’ll be a dead friendless virgin., gives the impression that one of Grace’s core concerns is not being able to find a sexual partner, the book is more focused on her friendship dynamics, which was a refreshing change. Another layer of intrigue is added to Grace’s character, as underpinning her anger is the looming presence of the ghost, which calls into question whether Grace’s anger stems from her grief, her changing friendships, or from the ghost.
Ballad for a Mad Girl deals with some pretty heavy-handed material, the death of Graces’ mother and the impact her grief has on Grace’s relationship with her friends and family, as well as the horror elements of the ghostly encounters, but Wakefield beautifully crafts the narrative without the novel plummeting to overbearing despair or gratuitous violence or gore. Much of this can be attributed to the complexities of the characters, and also Wakefield’s prose, which is interspersed with beautiful imagery. A cemetery scene filled with gothic imagery exemplifies Wakefield’s masterful craft.
Overhead, hundreds of swallows fly in perfect formation like a dancing cloud, and Maria’s angel gazes down solemnly as I pass. Above the noise of traffic out on the road, I hear the rustle of leaves. But there aren’t enough trees here to make that much sound. It’s voices. A chorus of whispering—real, or imagined, I can’t tell—that only gets louder as I approach the barrier of tape.
I loved everything about this book. The multifaceted characters who could say too much and not enough. The blurring of genres. The poignancy and sharpness of the depiction of grief that left me in tears more than once. The grittiness and beauty of the narrative.