"A room without books is like a body without a soul." - Marcus Tullius Cicero

Sunday, 7 April 2013

The Girl Next Door by Jack Ketchum

Don’t let the title fool you - this is not a teen rom-com, but rather one of the most horrifying and disturbing novels I have ever read. When Meg (14) and Susan (10) are orphaned after a horrific car accident, they end up living with their Aunt Ruth and her three sons. Ruth rapidly spirals into a vicious madness which infects her boys and eventually some of the surrounding neighbourhood, leading to the horrendous abuse and torture of the girls, especially Meg. David, Ruth’s neighbour and a friend of one of her sons, acts as bystander, watching the torture but - as he constantly reminds himself - not taking an active role in the abuse, ignorant to the harmful nature of his inaction. 

The intense scenes of physical and mental torture featured in the novel and its huge emotional impact on the reader make it very difficult to read. At one point I wasn’t sure I could continue - this has never haven’t to me before and I doubt it ever will again - the sheer power of the story is astounding. The Girl Next Door was inspired by the Sylvia Likens case, which makes it much more difficult to stomach, as you can’t brush events off as merely fiction. It is much more violent than Let’s Go Play at the Adams’, which is also loosely based on the Sylvia Likens case, and focuses more on the mental degeneration and the psychology of the victim. The Girl Next Door is told through the eyes of an adult David, who is recounting events through a series of flashbacks. 

Ketchum’s ability to humanise his characters is excellent, leading to conflicting emotions in the reader. David’s narrative style is captivating and innocent, capturing the essence of confused youth. Ketchum’s decision to unveil Meg’s torture through the eyes of David puts the reader in David’s position, forcing you into the role of bystander. I felt absolutely useless in this position - I wanted to scream at David for not taking any action. This choice of narrative also helps to highlight certain moral issues such as the extent that those who watch and do nothing are complicit in a crime. David constantly reminds himself that he personally hasn’t physically harmed Meg, without realising that by not attempting to put a stop to the situation he is causing her the worst harm of all. The novel brings into play plenty of other disturbing questions regarding juvenile delinquency, and whether those who commit crimes as children can be held accountable for the rest of their lives, particularly when they were led astray by an authority figure.  

The Girl Next Door was a very hard book for me to review - the horrifying subject matter might make you wonder how I can say I actually like this book, but the harrowing content reinforces this novel as a brilliant work: it is thought provoking, well written, disturbing and emotional. Since you view events from David’s point of view, Ketchum places you right in the front seat, forcing you to witness the torturous abuse, and making you truly hate Ruth and her sons, as well as others who eventually get involved. It makes you feel angry and extremely sad; the events which transpire will break your heart. I have never felt such strong emotions reading a novel before, and after finishing it I felt completely drained and exhausted. The story affected me deeply and had me thinking about it for weeks; never before have I come across such a powerful work. It is a very difficult book to recommend, but it is definitely worth reading if you have the strength to make it through.

Rating: 9/10

My other Jack Ketchum reviews:
Off Season

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