A teenage girl is held captive and brutally tortured by neighborhood children. Based on a true story, this shocking novel reveals the depravity of which we are all capable
Title: The Girl Next Door | Author: Jack Ketchum | Publisher: 47North Classics | Pages: 320 | ISBN: 9781503950566 | Publication date: 1989 | Source: Self-purchased
It’s always interesting reading a book with a reputation, and ‘The Girl Next Door’ certainly has one. I know a number of people who refuse to read it or who gave up on it, I can understand why. One person I know described to me how she physically threw the book against the wall twice while reading it. It’s a work that gets under your skin and that shocks in a way that few books do.
This is certainly a horrifying book and Ketchum is generally labelled as a horror writer, but for me this is a crime rather than a horror novel. It explores themes like guilt and complicity and despite its apparent amorality has a strong sense of justice at its heart.
The book is told from the perspective of David, now a middle-aged man but looking back on events that took place when he was a boy on the verge of adolescence in the 1950s. The plot is incredibly simple. Ruth, one of David’s neighbours and a single mother, has her two nieces come to live with her when their parents die in a car crash. Ruth and her sons (encouraged by their mother) abuse the older sister, Meg, in a manner which is mild at first but gradually ramps up to a truly horrific level. Whilst he isn’t an active participant, David is complicit in the abuse and as the book progresses other neighbourhood children also take part.
That gradual ramp up is excruciating. Reading the book, I knew it where it was going, but Ketchum stretches it out in a way that makes you think it might actually be okay. Then it reaches the tipping point, about half-way through, and the action changes from being just about bearable to absolutely appalling. Incredibly, the book manages to keep on getting worse. Just when you think it has peaked the violence goes up another notch. There is a conclusion, and I’m not sure it completely worked for me, being a little too neat, but that doesn’t diminish the impact of the book overall.
So, is it worth reading? Yes and no. It’s not a book I would recommend to anyone, but equally I wouldn’t discourage anyone from reading it. By and large it’s very well written, with punchy prose and convincing characters. Ketchum indulges a bit too much in “I didn’t know how much worse it would get” style last lines to chapters in the early part of the book, but they didn’t irritate me too much. Most importantly, David is a great narrator, full of self-disgust and introspection. He’s never exactly likeable, but he is sympathetic.
Ketchum also does a fantastic job of creating a believable community for the events to take place in. So many books and movies (particularly from the 1980s) present a horribly sanitised golden age view of the 1950s, where any evil comes from outside. ‘The Girl Next Door’ avoids that completely, every wrongdoer in it is a neighbour. It’s that depiction of everyday evil that makes the book so powerful. These are normal people doing unspeakable things. If I was getting overly-analytical I’d say that It stands as an effective allegory for the rise of the Nazis. Whether that was Ketchum’s intention I’m not sure, but there is certainly a message in here about the capacity for cruelty that lies within all of us.
As much as I was impressed by a lot about the book, there was one thing that didn’t work for me. Despite the fact that it is often horrifying and distressing I found that it didn’t have a great emotional impact. Compared to something like Lionel Shriver’s ‘We Need to Talk About Kevin’, which left me shaken, it’s strangely weak in that regard. I think the reason for this is that Meg’s suffering is only experienced second hand. Every outrage committed against her is filtered through David, so the book is all about his feelings rather than hers. I understand why Ketchum wrote it that way, but it’s a shame that David’s character ends up dominating the book at the expense of Meg’s.