I read The Girl Below by Bianca Zander in a weekend. Zander’s fast-paced debut novel is a page turner and kept me hooked right up until the very end. However it’s not until I finished the book that the true significance of Zander’s words began to sink in. I love that in a story – the way it lingers with you long after you have finished the last lines.
The Girl Below is told through the eyes of Suki Piper, a confused and depressed young woman who is trying to make sense of her past. Suki grew up in London but fled to New Zealand at age 18, after her mother passed away from cancer. The story commences ten years later, when she moves back to London to start over. She turns up in the big city alone, and spends months sleeping on a former colleague’s couch (much to the disgruntlement of other flatmates), before her life becomes intertwined with old family friends: an elderly neighbour from her childhood called Peggy, Peggy’s daughter Pippa and Pippa’s adolescent son Caleb.
Many chapters are flashbacks to Suki’s childhood, when she was living with her mother and father in the basement flat of a Notting Hill apartment building. In particular, Suki keeps going back to the night her parents had a roaring party, and something happened in the old World War Two bunker in the backyard. It is the mystery of the bunker that kept me turning the pages, and drove me to finish it within a weekend. Within the first few chapters its evident that something terrible happened down there, but Zander skilfully keeps us guessing as to what.
Suki is a complex character, and in many ways she is difficult to like. She’s the sort of person that it would be difficult to be friends with. Incredibly self-absorbed, Suki seems to be sleepwalking through her life. She suffers from regular anxiety attacks and insomnia, and appears quite unable to function properly. She also makes poor decisions and struggles to maintain genuine friendships. As for relationships, she has a string of toxic lovers to her name and has sworn off romance for good. She is quite literally alone in the world. Yet despite all her flaws, you will find yourself rooting for Suki, and hoping that she finds her way.
For me, above everything, The Girl Below is a story about mental illness. A story about a young woman suffering from severe depression and anxiety, to the point in which it has overtaken her life and made it near impossible for her to function like a “normal” person. It is easy to judge Suki, and to want to “shake her out of her stupor”, but you soon realise that she’s not like this by choice. And that nobody ever is.
The Girl Below is also a book about memory, and how unreliable it can be. When Suki recalls her childhood, this can seem to pass into the sphere of the supernatural. Towards the end, the story becomes patchy in places, and hard to believe. But I think that Zander was trying to emphasise that memory is imperfect. If you read the book with this in mind, it may help you understand some of the “weirdness” that occurs.
I’d highly recommend this book because it explores mental illness in an honest and refreshing way. I don’t think enough books go down this path, but I believe it’s an important path to take. While some of Suki’s personality traits may seem farfetched or unrealistic, I think Suki is actually a better representation of what “normal” is in today’s anxiety-ridden world than the idealistic characters of “happily ever after” novels.
Whether you want to or not, you’ll probably end up identifying with her on some level.