Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
Simone St. James burst on the literary scene like few others before her, being showered with awards and nominations from her very first novel. Years later she still continues her streak with The Broken Girls, a psychological ghost story centred on a boarding school, split into two narratives following a disappearance in 1950 and a murder decades later.
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Simone St. James Presents Ghosts and Murders
While ghost stories still feel scary to a select few people, I have the impression the majority of us have become desensitized to them due to their overwhelming depiction in popular media, and all the ridiculously obvious hoaxes associated with them. Nevertheless, we can still have original and captivating ghost novels, with The Broken Girls by Simone St. James being one of the best examples I could think of. Where most ghost stories fall astray into predictable cliches and tired tropes, in my opinion this one offers an experience with some true substance behind it.
The book opens by presenting us with the first narrative, taking us to the Idlewild Boarding School in 1950, located in Vermont. It’s a place where the rich can hide away their children too unruly to be controlled or bothered with. We meet four girls, Katie, Roberta, Cece and Sonia, who band together in hopes of somehow navigating the strict and hostile rules of the school. One day, Sonia reveals she was invited back home for a weekend, but alas, she never makes it there, nor does she it make it back to the school. She is declared a runaway, but her friends don’t believe the official version of events, despite being powerless.
Fast forward to 2014, and we have our second narrative, following the journalist Fiona whose older sister was murdered about twenty years ago. Her remains were found on the overgrown and unkempt Idlewild grounds, and her boyfriend was convicted of the murder. However, Fiona never could shake the feeling something more was brewing behind the scenes, and with a mysterious benefactor now restoring the school, she jumps at the chance to investigate the house of a million secrets, and even she couldn’t be prepared for all she is about to unravel.
Less Ghosts, More Murders in The Broken Girls
Now, let’s talk a little bit about ghost stories. Without turning this into some sort of debate as to the existence of ghosts and their potentially infinite manifestations, I think we can all agree they simply don’t strike fear like they used to.
Some authors and movie makers are of course trying to expand on the topic and find new twists to it, but I believe it’s a bit of a lost cause, lest some genius shows up and taps into ideas far above us. It feels to me like Simone St. James sees things in a similar way, at least if her approach to this story is to be believed.
That was what the books did—they turned off your thinking for you, put their thoughts in your head so you wouldn’t have your own.― Simone St. James, The Broken Girls
I was quite happy when I noticed partway throughout the book there actually wasn’t all this much ghost-related content to speak of, despite The Broken Girls being advertised as a ghost thriller. On the contrary, the contacts we do have with the apparition of a young woman are always on the periphery and they are sparse enough to feel significant in their own rights.
I do think this minimalist approach integrating a ghost into the story works quite well, adding a layer of mystery we can’t really shake out of our heads, but are never overwhelmed by. In the end, the ghost didn’t feel like a source of terror or anything of the sort, but rather an important element to drive the plot onward to discovery.
So what exactly takes place for the rest of the book? For me personally, the most engaging plot line by far was Fiona’s journalistic investigation into the boarding school’s past, the fate of Sonia, as well as the real culprit behind her sister’s murder.
She really is the one putting all the pieces together, and for the most part, it felt to me her investigation worked like a classic murder mystery, just following one ominous clue to the next one, bit by bit forming the big picture which explains everything.
There is no justice, Malcolm had told her once, but we stand for it anyway. Justice is the ideal, but justice is not the reality.― Simone St. James, The Broken Girls
Once again, I found cliches and old tropes were largely avoided here as well, and there were a couple of revelations which really took me by surprise. All in all, I think if Simone St. James wanted to write a pure murder mystery, she would be more than up to the task.
The True Bed of Villainy
While the plot driving The Broken Girls forward is relatively straightforward in its own right (not to mean it doesn’t have complexities to it), there is more beneath the surface for us to scratch our way to. To begin with, our traditional conception of who the villains are is challenged over the course of the story, and after I got a few chapters into it I was essentially seeing everyone through the same suspicious lens.
There is a good amount of depth to the characters, with them feeling like multidimensional human beings capable of both good and evil, like the overwhelming majority of us. Anyone could be guilty of anything, and even the most innocent-looking people can have a dark and sordid past. While some of them are indeed a bit less interesting or more predictable than others, I found overall the right amount of attention was given to the truly meaningful characters.
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Thankfully, the book isn’t completely mired in darkness and actually maintains a good balance, in my opinion of course, between the victory of villainy and the triumph of goodness in humanity. For all the dark tunnels of the human mind we travel through, we are also given many lines of hope to cling to, the faith humanity might yet prevail in the end. While most books centred on murder and darkness past don’t exactly fill me with joy or hope, this one manages to do that, which I believe is a commendable feat in and of itself.
The Final Verdict
The Broken Girls by Simone St. James is, despite how some places advertise it, a fantastic murder mystery first, with the ghost story coming in second place and on the peripheries. Both narratives have their hooks and revelations to offer, with the overall mystery itself being very intriguing on multiple fronts.
If you enjoy your murder mysteries digging into the deep past with a pinch of supernatural sprinkled in there, then I highly recommend you give this book a try.
VIDEO: Simone St. James interview about “The Broken Girls”
Simone St. James
Simone St. James is a writer from North America who, before giving herself to full-time authorship, spent around twenty years working behind the scenes in the television industry.
Her debut novel, The Haunting of Maddy Clare, won her two RITA Awards from Romance Writers of America as well as an Arthur Ellis Award from Crime Writers of Canada.
Her other novels have also earned her some prestigious nominations, such as An Inquiry Into Love and Death being nominated for another Arthur Ellis Award.