There are undoubtedly those people in this world whose life stories vehemently echo in tone a Machiavellian fairytale. That is, their lives are fraught with menacing clouds of abuse, in all it’s abject guises, and hope is a tenuous and seemingly elusive commodity.
Such forcefully sombre facts are seen to exist, in great detail and breadth, in phenomenally successful Australian author, Sally Hepworth’s, latest stellar thriller, Darling Girls.
Our three protagonists, ‘sisters’ Jessica, Alicia and Norah all share a common and unenviable bond. Twenty-five years ago, as traumatised and bewildered children, they became foster sisters together at Wild Meadows, a sprawling home and property on the outskirts of Port Agatha (a country town some two hours outside of Melbourne).
An ingredient for a fairytale is a witch-like villain. In this case it is the formidably cold and calculating foster mother, Miss Fairchild, who ran Wild Meadows with a demonstrably iron fist, and shocking absence of care and compassion for her charges. Miss Fairchild’s ghoulish antics included getting the girls in her ‘care’ to clean the house fastidiously for hours on end, and not feed the girls enough or nutritiously.
Now in their thirties, Jessica, Alicia and Norah, are navigating life in the ‘outside’ world as best they can, whilst trying to combat their childhood demons of fear, insecurity, anger and ever-present PTSD.
Jessica is married to the calm and accommodating Phil, and runs an ostensibly successful and popular “home-organisation business”. Beneath Jessica’s veneer, of glittering respectability and swirling social standing, however, lies a frightened and unsure woman, who steals prescription pills from her clients’ bathrooms. Her latest client, Debbie Montgomery-Squires, has ‘called Jessica out’ on this penchant for taking others’ medication and swallowing it herself.
Alicia is a social worker and case worker, working with foster children. While the feisty, anger-filled and unpredictably violent Norah earns her living “(completing) online IQ and psychometric testing on behalf of idiots who are applying for jobs”, as she tells her spurious date, Kevin, when she meets him.
A veritable and potentially harmful grenade is thrown in the foster sisters’ worlds, when they each get a sudden and earth-shaking phone call from the no-nonsense Detective Patel, telling them that human bones have been found under the house at Wild Meadows. Naturally, the girls, as former residents on the property, are required for individual questioning by the police.
Returning to Port Agatha to be interviewed by police, from Melbourne, is highly stressful and a most unwelcome occurrence for Jessica, Alicia and Norah. When they run into Miss Fairchild at the pub in Port Agatha, she seems to have conveniently ‘forgotten’ how she so harshly and cruelly messed up their lives as children. The scars are still deeply embedded in the foster sisters’ psyches and spirits.
Who do the bones under the house at Wild Meadows actually belong to?
Could it be those of two year old foster sister, Amy, who the girls adored and doted on, but who suddenly disappeared one day, as if she had never been there? (It seems to be only the girls and Miss Fairchild that knew of Amy’s existence. Miss Fairchild said Amy never was there when the girls went to the police about her, and their considerable abuse at the hands of Miss Fairchild)
Who is the patient of Dr Warren, the psychiatrist? The sessions with them both are interspersed throughout the story. Is Dr Warren’s talkative patient a victim or another being entirely?
What led to Miss Fairchild living at Wild Meadows? What has her past been?
Will Jessica, Alicia and Norah ever find the peace they so desperately crave and need? Will they ever find romantic love, and have their own families to love and care for?
Bravo Sally! Darling Girls is another (in a long line of) thrillers written so meticulously well by Sally.
Themes of abuse (mental, emotional, physical and sexual), mental health and trauma are written about expertly and realistically. Sally’s intelligence, wisdom, and powers of observation and insight into the human psyche and demeanor, overflow on every page. My heart alternatively soared and was broken whilst reading another page-turner from the incomparable Sally.
I loved Darling Girls. Please put me down to read whatever Sally writes next.
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