Maverick Life


‘Girls of Little Hope’ — a thrilling read that lingers long after the last word

‘Girls of Little Hope’ — a thrilling read that lingers long after the last word

In ‘Girls of Little Hope’, Sam Beckbessinger and Dale Halvorsen have written a compulsively page-turning, kickass feminist, emotionally deep and sometimes shockingly dark novel. While about and presumably aimed at teenagers, it can – and should! – be read by older adults too.

Three teenage girls have been missing from a small town for several days, and the search parties are out in force when two of the girls return, covered in blood and with patchy memories of what happened. Most importantly, while Donna and Rae are safe and unharmed, Kat is still out there. 

The two friends begin to piece things together, starting with the fact that the three of them had been investigating their boring small town’s one interesting mystery: why a man who lives on his own on the edge of the woods killed his parents 10 years ago. There’s a myth about the town’s lost gold mine that may have something to do with it, and a hidden cave deep in the forest that harbours a terrible secret. 

While it comes with all the satisfying spookiness and mystery of a horror/thriller novel, the story is at its heart about friendship. Not twee and cutesy friendship, but the friendship that forges us into who we are, sometimes by warmth and moulding, but sometimes by burning, melting, hammering. The three friends are brilliantly smart 15-year-old misfits eager to escape their small-town lives and existentially relieved to find their curiosities and ambitions reflected in each other. These relationships are quirky, funny and fully convincing; there isn’t a dull line of dialogue in the whole novel. 

The book is also created by two friends. It’s an example of how such co-writing can work, as the novel has a remarkably strong, sharp and characterful authorial voice. Halvorsen is known for his outstanding book cover designs, including for the early Lauren Beukes novels in their South African editions, and for being the co-creator with Beukes of the comic-book series Survivors’ Club. Beckbessinger should be familiar to local readers as the author of the multiyear bestseller How to Manage Your Money Like a F*cking Grownup (another surprisingly funny book about a terrifying topic, albeit in a different genre). I can’t recommend that book, like this one, highly enough. 

Beckbessinger and Halvorsen both grew up in small-town and suburban white South Africa, but the book is set in California, in a fictional town called Little Hope outside Sacramento. This is a smart move, given the relative size of the US market, to avoid being siloed outside of global literature, but also speaks to the dominance of US culture in their and many of our early lives. 

Also, small towns aren’t so different from one another as we like to think, all of them affected by constant migration, class and race differences, and battling the paradox of safety and entrapment. There are also thick strands of South Africanness in the book that power its creativity rather than its setting. The authors have taken some of what the writer Hedley Twidle calls our “unusable pasts” and put them to delightful, disturbing use. These include (SPOILER) a tapeworm that may or may not be telling them to do it.  

It is also, almost half of it, set in a forest. The forest is, at the start, just what lies on the outside of town, but increasingly it is alive, alert, a character in the story. As Kat’s mother remarks towards the end: “She misses the days she just had to worry about Donna Ramirez’s bad influence on her daughter, not the influence of the whole of the forest.” Forests, of course, are hungry, violent, death-in-life and life-in-death places, as Werner Herzog hilariously described jungles

The sheer wildness of forests underpins the plausibility of the novel’s otherwise fantastic plot, which draws on the emerging science of other minds including those of fungi and trees (Merlin Sheldrake, Rachel Carson and Peter Godfrey-Smith are mentioned in the acknowledgements). Forests are also beautiful. This is vividly evoked in direct description and also threads throughout the book’s aesthetics. When Rae, for instance, sees her next-door neighbour and crush Becca, she describes the hazel of her eyes as “like a blackwater stream stained with tannins, like scumbled fall leaves, like the wild moist things that live in loam”. That’s just one example of the easy beauty of the prose, highly crafted and cinematically visual but never distracting. 

The plot isn’t for the faint of heart. There is blood and gore galore. Part of the point is that puberty is bloody and gory, frankly horrifying, something we endure and then largely forget. Also gory are the apparent niceties of social life with its underpinning patriarchal, xenophobic and other oppressive structures, and the novel makes no bones about these too. An advert which appears beside a newspaper excerpt invites readers to “SLIM DOWN THIS SUMMER!” with “separate programmes” for “Young Ladies 18-29, Teens 13-17 and Pre-teens 8-12”. Eight-year-olds, like small towns, are not exempt from the crushing pressures of insane cultural norms, and these all seem to concentrate on the teenagers who are learning where the boundaries are and fighting ferociously to shift them. 

Girls of Little Hope is an incredibly multifaceted and generous experience both during and after reading. Its pages are filled with recreated newspaper clippings complete with ads, made-up internet threads, drawings and zine excerpts. There’s a link to print a version of the zine online. It even comes with a playlist of the girls’ favourite riot grrrl musicians. The story and overall vibe have parallels with the popular Netflix show Stranger Things – and that’s just one way of saying that the novel is screaming for a screen adaptation. May it, like the girls you’ll come to love, have long and rich afterlives. DM

Dr Charne Lavery is a senior lecturer in the Department of English at the University of Pretoria.


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