"Sawkill Girls" Book Review
Written by Tony Jones
Published by Katherine Tegen Books
Written by Claire Legrand
2018, 464 pages, Fiction
Released on October 4th, 2018
Sawkill Rock is an American island where over a long period of time numerous teenage girls have vanished without trace. An old local legend is sometimes blamed, stories are told around campfires, and the police are ineffectual. There is a supernatural being, which some call the ‘Collector’, feasting upon the flesh of the girls. When the novel opens, these murders are occurring more frequently with the monster growing in strength after every meal. The locals have become accustomed to these disappearances and even forget them until the next one comes along. At this stage readers would not be wrong in thinking that this sounds highly reminiscent to Stephen King’s IT. Having similarities to the King masterpiece is nothing new, but whilst Pennywise is a terrifying villain, the evil which lurks in the background of Sawkill Girls is tame in comparison and lacks the edge which the most memorable monsters have.
This is a Young Adult (YA) novel and its target audience will be predominately girls aged 13-17, however, it is maturely and sensitively written and I’m sure those a few years older may well enjoy it also. Sawkill Girls has been released with some hype and positive early reviews, however, I am not so convinced. For a novel 450 pages long, not enough happens and I wonder whether the intended YA audience will have the stamina to last the duration? I hung around to the end and found the supernatural element of the conclusion to be disappointing, with the Collector misfiring somewhat. The audience might be YA, but teens deserve a higher class of evil than is on offer in “Sawkill Girls”. On the other hand, the teen and relationships element of the novel is considerably stronger and the female audience will find much to connect with.
For much of the earlier stages, the supernatural lurks in the background and we are introduced to the three teenage girls from rotating points of view in alternating chapters. They all have different issues, anxieties, and concerns; the sort of stuff you would read in any teenage novel, including sexuality, friendship, self-harm and drugs. Many teen readers will get sucked into this aspect of the story and will identify with at least one of the three girls and pick a favourite. The chatty teen dialogue was convincing, with the very different girls soon realising they had to stand together to defeat the lurking evil.
Marion and her sister Charlotte are new to the island and have struggled to settle in their new home. Then there’s Zoey, who continues to hang out with her sort-of ex-boyfriend Grayson, and still has feelings for. Thirdly, there is Val, the least likable of the three, who comes from one of the oldest families on the island and has long-term issues with Zoey. Marion’s mother cleans for Val’s family and so the three teenagers are connected to each other in a variety of ways, which grow stronger as the novel develops. One also acts as a familiar to the creature, which is quite a nice touch and adds some spice to the three-way narrative. There is also a further section, in which the island itself, Sawkill Rock, is given brief, one-page prose sections overlooking the girls’ journey. This is strange, but it does work, giving the location some extra personality.
Spread over 450 pages I do not think the plot is strong enough or has enough strands to spin it out over such a beefy page length, and ultimately much of it is very predictable. At a certain stage the girls begin to develop their own special type of magic, which they eventually use against the Collector and although there are no martial arts, you’ll soon be thinking of Buffy ‘The Vampire Slayer’ Summers and her various battles and trials. The problem is these three are just not as engaging as Buffy and the supporting cast of Sawkill Girls is weak in comparison to Buffy’s gang. There is plenty of believable teen angst, but overall there is just not enough going on.
A lot has been written over the years about the feminism aspects of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and this subject has also cropped up in some reviews of Sawkill Girls. But what makes a novel truly ‘feminist’? I’m not sure I’m qualified to answer my own question! However, this book has three female characters as leads, some lesbian sex, the same three leading ladies develop powers and then fight a monster. But that’s it. Surely there has to be more to feminism in fiction than this? If there is a deeper message in this novel, I missed it.
I review a lot of YA for another big horror site and the most convincing examples have a balance between an authentic teenage voice and the horror aspect. This is where Sawkill Girls falls short. The teen voices are authentic, but the supernatural angle fails to convince, and when brought together, the novel suffers an identity crisis. Admittedly, it is very hard to balance these two elements in YA horror. An author who does this exceptionally well is Amy Lukavics, who has written four superb teenage novels starring girls who are in turn vulnerable, powerful and authentic enough to genuinely get under your skin. Another fine example is the handicapped young woman, Nessa, who stars in Peadar Ó Guilín’s The Call duology; I would scream from the rooftops for that girl. I would not raise my voice in defence of any of the three in this Sawkill Girls.
Lots of reviewers have gushed about Sawkill Girls but I believe they are papering over a novel which has lots of cracks, has a tiresome villain, not enough happens, and is way too long. Its strength lies in the trials and tribulations the three teenage girls go through over the course of the story, but a winning horror novel, YA or otherwise, needs something more.