And then it happened. A crime on her watch.
‘And then it happened. A crime on her watch.’ These aren’t the first words in Ghost Girls but they do convey the distinctive flavour of this exciting thriller.
With the exception of cleverly introduced flashbacks, the story takes place in Sydney. The reader is introduced to the city’s language schools that teach, or at least pretend to teach, English as a second language to predominately Asian students. The good and the bad aspects of these institutions and their teachers are presented mostly through Sophie’s eyes, who has experienced a crime on her watch. At any rate, Sophie – the novel’s protagonist – has decided to make it her watch, taking on the responsibility for solving the suspected crime for reasons that the flashbacks progressively reveal.
Much of the action happens in Sydney’s Chinatown. As the plot unfurls, it becomes harder to distinguish the good guys from the bad and the mere scammers from the villains. With the smells and tastes in and around the Chinese restaurants are faithfully invoked, you can almost taste the szechuan chilli chicken and hot boiled dumplings even while worrying about Sophie’s safety as she ignores numerous warnings and ventures ever more deeply into a dubious network that exploits students.
While this is a work of fiction, it is rooted in fact. So the reader not only gets a detective drama (though Sophie never refers to herself as a detective), but also an insight into some of the problems created by Australia’s student visa regulations and how they affect underfunded students trying to learn English. There are further insights into the evil underbelly of Sydney proffered in the novel, but these are better not divulged in a review.
On the lighter side, the chapter breaks are marked alternately with ‘鬼’, the character for ‘ghost’ and with ‘女孩’, meaning ‘girls’ – a pleasant conceit.
The year 2016 is still young and hopefully many good novels will emerge from local writers. However good they are, though, it is already clear that Ghost Girls will be among the very best of them.
Rating: 4 stars out of 5
by Cath Ferla