[Review] Jane Healey’s Ophelia Girls

I have been wondering lately on the tendency of teenage girls to interrogate the meanings of death. Slumber parties dipped in explorations of the supernatural by way of daring such superstitions as Bloody Mary in bathroom mirrors. Paper folded into predictions for the future. Emulations of media’s greatest tragic heroines in games of make believe that teeter on the edge of reality. All of these are fairly commonplace occurrences at some stage of a girl’s life no matter how hard the narrative of “sugar, spice, and everything nice” gets pushed. How many do you know, for example, who did not playfully dabble in a witchcraft of their own childhood imaginations?

We play at death as children because we trust in the expanse of life, that it cannot really touch us. Unless, of course, we are faced with it early on. In both cases, the root of the game is control. We want the power to explore it on our own terms, one remove from the uncertainty of its truth. Jane Healey’s upcoming novel The Ophelia Girls casts its games of death and daring in a softly threatening light, wrapping us in flower petals even as it pulls us into its current.

Told through the alternating perspectives of Ruth, a woman fighting memories of a teenage tragedy when she’s forced to return to her childhood home, and her daughter Maeve, who is reckoning with the idea of a normal life after a childhood enveloped in hospital stays thanks to an intense battle with pneumonia, Ophelia Girls presents a tale of risk and desire with an intense longing at its heart. Ruth is a wife and mother battling the truth of her identity within herself in the past and present. Maeve is 17 and looking for answers to questions of her own she isn’t sure how to ask — how do you have a normal life with a body that rebels so forcefully against you, and how far are you willing to go for a love you can hardly grasp at understanding?

Playing at death and snatching life

As a queer child-product of the hospital myself, both ends of Ophelia Girls resonated with me with unexpected depth. I, too, spent many of my earlier years feeling like a weight upon my family for a condition I neither invited nor controlled. I spent time anxious at the prospect of hospital visits and testing the limits of the things I could handle in a body that demanded I should handle less than most. I felt the fear of what happens when the seemingly unending mountain of a battle that is adapting to a different body is suddenly conquered and you are thrust into the real, unsanitized world that will not bend for you in a way hospitals do. Perhaps more than that, when your body is ravaged in youth there is a sense of floundering for confidence in yourself and your body that seems to come so naturally to able-bodied counterparts, and when you are rolling in that sea of confusion you’ll sometimes take any form of love that’s offered to you. Even if it’s unorthodox. Even if it’s wrong. Because sometimes preying on the weak feels like being seen, to the victim. That’s what makes it so effective. And so dangerous.

I have always loved a good tragic heroine, even as I hope for a better life for her than the one for which she is destined. It’s what fascinates me most about the endless possibility of retellings; in them lies the opportunity to give voice to those who were overlooked or treated as little more than fodder for the main characters to use and toss aside. Ophelia Girls, while not actually a retelling of anything, does manage to feel as though it is offering complex echoes of tragic heroines past a modern voice. Both Ruth and Maeve make decisions that rock the foundations of their worlds, selfish and unapologetically wanting in a way that occasionally makes them less-than-likable characters. But this natural repulsion to imperfect women is where they get their power. We are pulled along with them and the air of danger they envelop themselves in, bearing witness to their choices and their tragedies alike, because we cannot look away. They are alluring in their danger and we are but helpless petals on the stream.

Ophelia Girls sets up a simple premise in its past-story of Ruth’s teenage summer and the roiling tragedy at its heart. Having a photoshoot at a river for a summer art project is something I and my friends even managed to do ourselves, though the goal was not to emulate the beauty of romantic death. Ruth’s battle and shame in herself while she grapples for a sense of her identity is achingly painted with such care I found myself eager to get to her chapters to uncover the mystery even as she twisted scenarios into stories that centered her with a self-centeredness that would make your head spin.

That is perhaps one of Healey’s greatest strengths in the novel: to present the same situation in different points of view in such a way as to make the current speaker the center of attention. We are all the main characters of our own lives, after all, even as we are usually little more than the bit parts of others’. As readers we are clued in alternately to the fact that neither women necessarily has their story straight, and we can see the twisting of it to fit a narrative each has already constructed in their head, and yet it is all the more compelling to watch the worlds converge into a version of the truth it is almost painful to look at.

Ophelia Girls is an unmissable offering, even as it makes you uncomfortable. While not classifiable as a horror novel exactly, it does have buried within it a horrific heart that beats a compulsive pattern of longing for a life fulfilled.

I would like to thank the publisher and NetGalley for the opportunity to read an advance copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

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