This heartbreaking story is inspired by real life – and somehow manages to be both devastating and life-affirming, even while the protagonist is caught up in the kind of cascading misfortune that could easily sink her.
The narrator – the shadow girl – is homeless and on the run, at just 13 years old. Her parents have disappeared, leaving her in the care (and at the mercy) of her uncle and aunt. Her uncle, a dangerous man, has been sexually abusing her; if he finds her, she fears for her life. And so she sleeps in rail yards, sand dunes and abandoned houses – but tricks her way into a new school, where she pretends to have a family.
School and books are her escape, her sustenance – she dreams of becoming a doctor. In the meantime, she is focused on evading her uncle, who wants to kill her, and somehow continuing to go to school. It’s there that she meets an author for young adults, who takes down her story.
The Shadow Girl is an extraordinary achievement, creating a central character who is assailed by life but refuses to be a victim – and is propelled forward by the kindness of those she encounters and the inspiration provided by her books and her dreams of the future.
Sydney-based author and screenwriter John Larkin was born in England but grew up in the western suburbs of Sydney.
He has, at various stages of his writing career, supported his habit by working as a supermarket trolley boy, shelf-stacker, factory hand, forklift driver, professional soccer player and computer programmer. He now writes full-time.
John has a BA in English Literature and a MA in Creative Writing from Macquarie University.
The Shadow Girl is forced out of her home and on the run by her predatory uncle. She sets out on a journey that spans an entire city with her ingenuity and determination and her uncle chasing her down.
The vast and numerous settings are remarkably well executed – they are tangible without being laboured. From page one the reader becomes deeply invested in the shadow girl’s plight, fearful for her on every page and unable to turn away thanks to the novel’s perfectly paced, suspense-filled plot. An ambitious thriller that fulfils its promise.
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Sometimes when reading a young adult novel, it becomes obvious that this is a book truly for teenagers. The Shadow Girl is one of these books. And it’s not because the story is one that should be prescribed reading for teens or because the dialogue contains absolutely accurate young-person slang, but because it encapsulates the world of the modern, urban teenager with sympathy, nuance and the exact right amount of humour/cynicism/sarcasm.
It’s also a terrific thriller with a despicable villain and a lead character – the shadow girl herself – who would drag empathy out of the most hard-boiled of readers.
Sydney author John Larkin was inspired to write The Shadow Girl after meeting a girl during an author talk at a school, and being vastly affected by her situation. She was homeless and living on the city’s trains, yet she was incredibly well-read, had a brilliant mind and was treated with great affection by the other students. Larkin has built on the story of this girl and produced a remarkable novel. A fictional account of life on the streets, which is actually life on the trains.
The nameless shadow girl survives by sleeping in bus shelters, hotels and said trains – once they’ve been locked away in the train yards for the night. But her real tools of survival are slightly more academic. Literally.
She’s a fan of Hemmingway’s The Old Man and the Sea and during her time as a runaway tries out Bleak House and Pride and Prejudice. But Roald Dahl’s Matilda is also an influential book for her. She’s a character in transition, from her old life to a new one; from adolescence and to adulthood; from Dahl to Dickens.
And with the thirst for books comes the understanding of how she’ll actually survive all this: education. She manages to scam her way into a new school under a false identity and we get a real sense that things are temporary. She’ll eventually get to university. Her broken home won’t break her forever.
She has run away from home, mainly to escape ‘Creepo’ – her legal guardian and uncle. He’s a rotten guy, abusive to his wife and horridly-tempered. The shadow girl also suspects him of murdering her mother years ago. On top of all this, he’s just started ‘visiting’ her during the night. She runs away before things can escalate any further.
The book is slightly over-long, but with the length we get not just a thrilling story with a seriously bad bad guy, but an intricately illustrated portrait of a life on the streets. And yet it’s a book that teenagers will relate to, despite the portrayal of homelessness, as well-known teenage hangouts like trains, dinky cafes and fish’n’chip shops are presented in new contexts that cast very different lights on these familiar settings of urban adolescence.
There are also religious undertones of the philosophical variety (our narrator sees both the worth and contradictory nature of the church) and hints of otherworldly activity. But in the end, The Shadow Girl is all about the eponymous character. John Larkin gets into the head of this troubled teenage girl so well that, as you’re reading, you forget that an author ever went about the business of writing her.
The shadow girl is the reason you’ll read through to the end – and it’s her company you’ll miss when the book is over.
This review is by Andrew McDonald of andrewmcdonald.net.au
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