A stunning exploration of grief and love, memory and shame.
The Girls by Chloe Higgins. Author and book cover image via Pan Macmillan Australia.
In 2005, Chloe Higgins’ father takes his two youngest daughters on a family ski trip. Seventeen years old and studying for the HSC, Chloe stays behind with her mother. On the return trip, her father’s car unexpectedly collides with another and bursts into flames. Chloe’s father is pulled from the wreckage; unnoticed by helpers, her two younger sisters die in the fire.
In the years that follow, her father is consumed by a need to puzzle out the cause of the accident. Her mother, suddenly missing two children, is desperate for closeness and connection with her only remaining child, reading Chloe’s diaries when she is unable to reciprocate. Chloe herself, dazed and overwhelmed, turns to first alcohol, then drugs, then sex work, then travel, and finally, to writing to cope. The Girls is a memoir of that time, an exploration of the aftermath of trauma, of learning how to let go. With grace and delicate insight, Higgins shares her family’s story.
Higgins’ depiction of her relationship to her parents is utterly overwhelming. Her mother’s brittle, bright, optimistic avoidance, her father’s bone-deep shame and misery, his endless quest for unattainable answers. Their fear that their lost daughters will be forgotten. Stifled by her parents and now expected to fulfil the role of three children, Chloe pulls away from them. It takes her years to learn how to come back.
Higgins’ writing is remarkably restrained, simple. With such profound and heavy subject matter, Higgins wisely refrains from overdressing it in florid, twirling prose. Instead, her restraint allows the poignancy of the family’s story to shine through, dripping with emotion. When she talks about her father saying things like, ‘When I killed my daughters…’, Higgins does not need to tell us how this makes her feel.
Grief is not a straight line; it is not a progression from sad to not sad. Higgins shows us that; that the rebuilding of lives after trauma is messy. We fall down, we get back up, we cling to each other, we push our loved ones away. We try. We make do. Near to the end of The Girls, Higgins realises her sisters have been all but absent from the text. A symptom, perhaps, of her misery, Higgins notes she avoids thinking about them or using their names, that she rarely even dreams about them. It is the mesmerising final chapter, when Carlie and Lisa are poured back into the pages in a heady rush, that is the catharsis of the memoir. The girls are gone, but not forgotten.
4 ½ stars out of 5
The Girls by Chloe Higgins
Publisher: Pan Macmillan Australia
Imprint: Picador Australia
Categories: Memoir, Australian
Release Date: 27 August 2019