Reviewed by Wendy Lipke
Some people believe that it is important for children to have pets as they get the opportunity to experience death and learn about the grieving process and that this will prepare them for the experience of losing a family member. Others believe that the grieving process is somehow innate in us all. Chloe Higgins believes we learn to grieve just like learning to ride a bicycle, falling over and fumbling as we go. This book is a record of her learning to grieve.
The Girls, by Chloe Higgins, refers to two young girls who died, unexpectedly, in tragic circumstances, leaving behind the mother and father and their older sister, just a teenager herself at the time.
This is a personal memoir of the author, the older sister, and as such is written in the first person from her point of view in a conversational style. The mother, though shattered by the loss of two of her daughters became the glue which holds the remaining family connected. To others she remains kind and optimistic. The father shuts himself off from others and always blames himself for killing his daughters.
How the remaining daughter, Chloe, lives her life after the tragedy, is the focus of this book. She indulges in behaviours which, in hindsight, she is not proud of, yet she has not let the revelation of this part of her life deter her from writing this book.
She believes that people should be more open about ‘the hard, private things in their lives…that we are all walking around carrying dark bubbles of secrets’ (305).
This is not a light book to read. In some ways it is a very depressing book. The nine pages of diary entries belonging to the father I found particularly emotional to read. The information is well put togetherand various segments of her life segue neatly as she reveals her feelings and actions in a non- chronological manner. The writing of this book was probably a cathartic exercise for the author.
We live in an age of greater awareness of debilitating problems such as depression and these issues are more openly discussed today. For too long conversations surrounding death and depression were not talked about, so this book will have an important role in opening up these topics for discussion.
The author has been very brave in baring aspects of her life which could be quite embarrassing to herself and also to her parents but she was prepared to do this because she believed that ‘the story in these pages is, in some ways, me (her) trying to figure out how to have healthy relationships with these two people (her parents), within the context of our shared grief and vastly different world views’ (306).
However, she was also very aware that by telling her story she was also exposing part of her parents’ lives. I believe she has treated this part of her story with the respect it deserves, although some of what she revealed, I thought, was unnecessary.
One thought that came to me while reading this book was that it was about someone trying to move on from a terrible tragedy and that everything that happened in the life of Chloe was, supposedly, the result of this tragedy. As her life after the tragedy is revealed, I couldn’t help wondering just how much of Chloe’s behaviour was indeed the result of the loss she experienced or whether some parts of her behaviour couldn’t be placed at the door of her personality and teenage rebellion.
It certainly seems evident that Chloe was depressed and she believed that this was the result of the accident. She tells the reader on page 103, ‘This is what grief looks like: ‘crying because someone asks you to drive’. She repeats the statement again on page 131, however, the outcome this time is ‘an inability to speak’.
Although the title is The Girls there is not much about the two girls who lost their lives in this book. This book is about Chloe. The author, herself realises this on page 284 so the remaining pages do tell the readers something about The Girls. Chloe’s life, and that of her parents, has not been a happy one since the tragic accident and readers can empathise with her even as they may not agree with some of the choices she has made.
This book is an honest portrayal of a young girl growing up after a tragic accident which took the lives of her two younger sisters. It is also a record of a young girl’s relationship with her mother as she tries to move forward after the accident and become more independent. If the writing of this book is a means for Chloe to unburden herself so she can move ahead then it has served a purpose. This book could also be of great help to others in the community who have had to face a similar tragedy.
The final word comes from the author herself, ‘this is not just a grief memoir. It is a universal plea for the expression of the deepest and most difficult of emotions…’ (306).
Chloe Higgins loves to write and often does so about issues others shun. She has aligned herself with creative writing groups and is Director of Wollongong Writers Festival. The Girls, a memoir of family, grief and sexuality is her first novel.
By Chloe Higgins
Picador Pan Macmillan Australia
ISBN: 9 781760 782238