Today I am sharing my thoughts on the scarily relevant new novel from Alex Marwood. Never one to shy away from dark and troubling subjects, this book certainly leaves a mark. My thanks to publisher Sphere for the advance copy for review. Here’s what it’s all about:
About the Book
Sun-drenched glamour and obscene wealth hide the darkest of secrets and lost girls in this ripped-from-the-headlines thriller.
For twelve-year-old Mercedes, La Kastellana is the place she calls home. It is an island untouched by the modern world, with deep-rooted traditions – though that is all about to change with the arrival of multimillionaire Matthew Meade and his spoiled young daughter, Tatiana. The Meades bring with them unimaginable wealth, but the price they will all pay is far darker than Mercedes and the islanders could ever have imagined.
Robin is desperately searching for her seventeen-year-old daughter Gemma, who has been missing for over a year. Finding herself on La Kastellana, the island playground of the international jet set, Robin is out of her depth. Nobody wants to help and Robin fears she is running out of time to find her child.
But someone has been watching, silently waiting for their moment to expose the dark truth and reveal to the world what really happens on the island of lost girls.
La Kastellana. Just picture it. A beautiful island location, largely unspoiled and untouched by ‘foreigners’, where traditional values reign over all, and everything is governed by the whims of one man, the Duke, and the island’s very religious beliefs. Where man is king and women have a very particular place in society, one from which they must not deviate. Their job is to grow up and to marry, to support their family and, ultimately, their husband. Sounds like a misogynists dream right, and every living woman’s nightmare. But it works for the women of La Kastellana. Sort of. It’s not perfect but it is their way of life. At least until a new Duke takes up residence and brings with him a whole new set of friends and a very different way of life. Things are about to change for the Islanders, and not necessarily in a good way. From humble living to a vision of excess, with the men comes money, with money, power and all the darkness that such a toxic combination an conjur …
I’ve only read a couple of books by Alex Marwood now, but it is safe to say that each one has left its mark on me. If there is one thing you can be certain of it is that the author will not shy away from the dark and often painful truth of modern life. If you can read The Island of Lost Girls and not be left with a combined sense of anger, disgust, abhorrence and, at least towards the end a kind of feeling of justice being served, then I really do think you either weren’t paying attention or perhaps even read a different book to me. The author specialises in ‘ripped from the headlines’ thrillers, but has surpassed herself this time. If I say this is more like a ‘ripped from the Jeffery Epstein’s playbook’ kind of a thriller then you will start to build a bit more of a picture of what the book is about and where the darkness is likely to lead.
On the surface this is a story of a very patriarchal society, where mens wishes and whims are indulged far more readily than we may be used to. However, throughout the book we follow the lives of several different women, and male characters are really secondary to their stories. Their toxic behaviour may shape the women’s lives, but their voices are heard only when relevant to the individual stories.
Firstly we have Mercedes, native islander, who we meet as a child and then as a grown woman. Her life has been indelibly changed and shaped by the arrival of Matthew Meade, and his daughter Tatiana, on the island, and not in a good way. I liked Mercedes very quickly, felt anger and sorrow for her situation, but also a kind of satisfaction in knowing that there was a edge to her character, a tenacity and unbreakable spirit that could triumph, in spite of all of her tragedy. And there is Robin, a woman who is searching for her daughter, Gemma, a runaway whose last known location was La Kastellana. We know little of Robin from the start, other than her desperation to find her daughter, but as we learn more I could find myself becoming more sympathetic to her situation, it being one that I am sure many parents would recognise, although not to this extreme.
Mercedes’ family plays the largest role in the book and, along with her mother, Larissa and sister Donatella, is central to one of the key elements of this story. I could see the strength in all of the women, especially Donatella, only really a child but already recognising that there must be more to life than living on the island. It is a knowledge which can only bring trouble and her spirited nature creates one of the books most pivotal moments at the point when the visitors first start to appear on the island, one that informs the present in the darkest, and most troubling, of ways. It changes Larissa, and also changes Mercedes future, casting a dark cloud over proceedings. Alex Marwood really has created a formidable cast of women here, but in a very patriarchal society, there is no place for their kind of attitude or spark, and the consequences are devastating.
Then there is Tatiana. Spoiled daughter, socialite and all round abhorrent character, who is crafted in such a way that, from the moment we meet her I could feel my hackles rising. The more we see of her, the more hated her sense of entitlement and everything about her felt so wrong and yet so very believable. It is far too easy to draw parallels between her and another very high profile socialite of the modern era, the author illustrating once again how this story is based equally in the world of fact as much as fiction. I would hope that various elements of the story are fictitious, that nothing ever took the dark turn that is explored in this book, but certainly if you look into a little of the history of recent high profile criminal cases, you will recognise a lot from the scenes that play out in such a disturbing fashion in this book.
This is a dark story. Certain scenes will, and should, leave you angry. The author protects us from the worst of what happens, but gave enough detail for me to be able to understand what occurred. This is a story about exploitation, grooming, even indentured slavery. It is the epitome of the patriarchal society, where women’s rights are an inconvenience, and where men with money and power can buy and sell whatever they so choose. To those men with the right money and contacts, people are no more than a commodity, to be used and disposed of at will. But perhaps the fact that their actions and behaviour are tolerated or facilitated by other women is where the true darkness lies. Moving seamlessly between past and present, the author captures all of the toxicity that infects La Kastellana, shows us how its traditional value system serves to facilitate such egregious behaviour, in a way which is searingly relevant and depressingly believable given recent developments across the Atlantic.
But beyond this darkness, if you can look past the shocking nature of what unfurls, the story does also show the strength of women in adversity. There is a kind of raw beauty to the relationship between Mercedes and Donatella, even between Mercedes and her mother, Larissa. And this is not all about condemning the evil nature of men. There are some male characters to be found here for whom turning a blind eye is not an option, and whose conscience lends itself to a kind of just resolution to this oh so sorry tale.
This is not necessarily an easy story to read, but it is a very powerful one. There are some very easy to draw parallels between fact and fiction here, and with the darkness, whilst stark, kept a few shades shy of gratuitousness, the impact of this book will stay with me for some time. There are moments of tranquility, a gentle pace at times that defies the intensity of some of the scenes, but one which allowed me to take a breath when the truth of the depravity threatened to overwhelm. Definitely recommended.