A debut crime novel, Ghost Girls give us a good story that can be better told.
With that said, perhaps most striking about this book is Cath Ferla’s use of smells and tastes, which, in her writing, play a prominent role in the lives of Chinese people in their home country and overseas, in this case Sydney’s Chinatown. Smells and tastes help to shape and give depth to the protagonist Sophie Sandilands, in the context of her mother being an ethnic Chinese from Hong Kong, her housemate and potential lover being a Chinese Australian chef, and she herself having lived and experienced loss in China. Smells and tastes further help to elicit memories, making pain at the present even more unbearable while generating a sense of yearning and even regret in its victims about their past.
Sophie cares about her Chinese students who may or may not be studying English in Sydney’s numerous (dodgy) language schools. She understands that some of them are willing to work for money, but when things cross the line, she feels morally and personally obliged to intervene. From flashbacks we see her motive – bits and pieces scattered everywhere until someone, with some difficulty, gathers them to form the big picture. In this process of solving the crime, however, the dots – vital clues that are essential in creating the joy of reading – are distributed so far away from each other that any attempt to join them appears far-fetching.
Think of The Silence of the Lambs, in which Hannibal Lecter leaves a note to Clarice Starling that says, “Doesn’t this random scattering of sites seem desperately random – like the elaborations of a bad liar?” Indeed, Buffalo Bill desperately wants the bodies of his victims to be found randomly, to the effect that “there is no pattern or the computers would’ve nailed it”. To achieve this, he weighted down the body of Fredrica Brimmel, his first victim, to prevent it from drifting, so the “first girl taken” became the “third body found”.
This helps to explain the problem shared by many inexperienced crime novelists – the scattering of clues is so desperately random that the whole story is clearly, obviously, evidently a fabrication and lacks a sense of genuineness. In other words, there are stories that suspend your disbelief, and there are stories whose fragments are so cleverly and carefully gathered together that you know the authors have worked really, really hard to make them up.
The constant change of POV is also an issue in Ghost Girls. Most of the time we are looking at the case from Sophie’s point of view. It is also reasonable that at one stage, a more experienced figure is required to help with her detective work. It even feels natural, from time to time, to probe into the minds and hearts of the major culprits, the accomplices, the involuntary participants, and even the victims.
But the story turns the corner so abruptly at one point that the momentum causes it, like a car, to tip over and roll onto its roof. It is the one and only moment that we see the case from the other detective’s perspective. Then, to continue using the metaphor of a car, the crashed vehicle miraculously rolls back onto its four wheels and continues its journey until a destination is reached – note the “a” here. It is the moment we are conveniently told why one of the culprits is killed by a victim. Just like that.
Finally, I have the feeling that as an author, Ferla refrains herself from cutting into her story too deeply and too sharply. She has yet to fully release her creative power – something raw but precious in first-time authors – perhaps due to a lack of confidence or even a fear of success. It remains my hope that in the near future, we will see her second book as an example of how courageous (and ruthless) a writer can and should be.