The Perfect Girl - Gilly MacMillan
The Perfect Girl - Gilly MacMillan *****
Life isn't always fair. Life also has a way of repeating itself, but that's perhaps because we never entirely are able to break away from the past. But there are lessons that can be learned from the unfairness of life and from past mistakes in the case of Zoe Maisey, the 'Perfect Girl' of Gilly MacMillan's second novel. It's a strong theme and it's one that the author impressively builds into the very foundation and structural framework of this terrific little thriller in such a way that the characterisation and the crime elements form an inseparable bond.
The past and the present are interwoven then into a book that is almost equally divided into two parts. The first half itself is split across a significant Sunday night and Monday morning that results in a death within Zoe's family, but it's the past that lies heavily upon those events and determines how each of the characters responds to the situation. The past is one where 17 year-old Zoe is trying to start a new life as a talented pianist, trying to overcome a terrible accident that occurred in her past. As a young girl, she was responsible for the deaths of several of her school friends while driving a car after drinking at a party. Her version of events wasn't believed, and Zoe has had to live with the consequences of her conviction ever since.
The case has had a devastating effect on her family, but she and her mother Maria have managed to move on, leaving Devon for Bristol and starting a "Second Chance Family" with Maria's new husband Chris and his son Lucas. When one of Zoe's concerts is unexpectedly interrupted by the father of one of the children who died in the car crash, it becomes evident that Zoe's mother hasn't told her new husband about Zoe's past. Another metaphorical car crash is about to happen in Zoe's life, the past in danger of unravelling all their best efforts to move on and start anew.
There's a dead body and an intriguing mystery to be explored in the second half of the novel, but Gilly MacMillan never lets The Perfect Girl feel like the typical crime investigation. She's more concerned with exploring all the characters involved, and it's masterfully written in that respect. The mystery keeps a forward momentum with the events leading up to it forensically laid out, but at the same time there's a meticulous and penetrating interior exploration into the hearts of the characters that is critical to how things are going to develop in the second half. The divisions between past and present are not so much the typical novelistic device of gradual reveal through flashbacks as much as a way of probing deeper into the characters. It's the collision of past with the present that each person has to assimilate within their lives, measuring the imperfect ideals they hold against the realities of the external world.
There's a duality here then that holds something of the potential of each of the characters and it's here that the author is most successful at involving the reader in the various dramas that are playing out, few of which are visible on the surface. Allowing the reader to experience perceptions from a variety of first-person perspectives, it's clear that there's no stock characterisation here. Each one of the personalities involved (though maybe not all, but that's an interesting point to debate) might well be a better person if allowed to be; if they weren't bound by experiences of the past; if they weren't with the wrong person; if they didn't make mistakes in the choices available to them; if life were fair. Life isn't fair, but there are always opportunities for "second chances". What matters is recognising them when they occur and grasping them. Some are able to do it and some aren't and some of the biggest surprises in the novel is finding out just who is capable of showing that strength when it is really needed.
It's a tribute to Gilly MacMillan's writing that this binding theme and the sense of structure is so subtly woven into the drama that it is almost imperceptible. It's clearly no accident however, since separating accident from design and working with the ambiguous space in-between is precisely what matters here. MacMillan, for example, brilliantly inserts one little incident between Zoe and a Care Worker that is deeply unsettling and yet holds great significance for how Zoe responds to the situation she finds herself in again. But it's not the only incident of this type Ambitiously, the situation played out between Tessa and Richard, between Lucas and Chris, in the experiences of Sam and even Philip; all of whom are at a critical point where the right or wrong action could leave them isolated. Even Lucas' ideal film version of events that plays out in a screenplay and in his head reflects this division between how he would like life to be and the more threatening reality that must be confronted.
The past and present, ideals and reality, all collide in The Perfect Girl in such a way that creates threatens to destroy the lives of each of the characters, at the same time as it offers a way out of their current impasse. MacMillan takes this through to a credible and satisfying conclusion, the characters evolving and responding in their own way, the author however never deviating from the truth that life indeed often isn't fair, and not everyone will come through it unscathed.
The Perfect Girl by Gilly MacMillan Hart is published by Piatkus on 3rd March 2016.