Faber and Faber, £7.99, ISBN 978-0-571-25523-8
Nightswimming by Rebecca James is one of my all-time favourite stories, and considering that that book was her debut published effort, that was a most impressive feat. Alas, as it happens sometimes, that book sank quickly and the author retreated to lick her wounds.
And then Beautiful Malice happens. This is a different kind of story altogether, as it is a psychological thriller that manages to incorporate plenty of human elements. Initially published as a young adult novel in Australia, this one is repackaged as a novel for the general public abroad. I understand from some folks that the US edition has most of the Australian flavor in this story clumsily exorcised, but the UK edition I am reading does not boast of such silliness.
Katherine Patterson, seventeen, is the new girl in Drummond High. She has recently moved from Melbourne to this quiet part of New South Wales. Katie generally keeps to herself, which is easy as she is an average student with average scores and she does not participate in clubs and sports. However, she manages to attract the attention and inexplicable friendship of one of the most popular girls, Alice Parrie. However, as their friendship deepens, Alice begins to show signs of that she may not be the nicest person around. She will play on Katie’s vulnerabilities and, believe me, Katie has already enough issues to deal with. She left Melbourne because of the high profile murder of her young sister. As the story progresses, it will become obvious why Katie feels so much guilt and self-loathing over her sister’s murder.
To be honest, I don’t find the suspense element in this story particularly memorable as I have come across variations of this storyline before both in books and movies. There are also some unanswered questions in this story that have me scratching my head. What makes this story work very well, therefore, is the psychological element. Katie’s state of pain and confusion is raw and real, and Alice for a long time comes off as a realistic emotional manipulator, playing on Katie’s vulnerabilities until the poor girl doesn’t know which way is up anymore.
Reading Beautiful Malice can be an emotionally draining but satisfying experience because of the compelling psychological components of this story. The characters feel like real people. Katie is not a Mary Sue heroine – she is, in fact, a well-drawn character with both strengths and weaknesses that slowly become apparent to the reader. The story can be quite ironic in that Alice, in seeking to hurt Katie, actually catalyzes Katie’s healing and the finding of the courage to move on. Alice is not a starkly drawn villain either. In fact, she is also very damaged in her own right, and while there is no excuse for her actions, I can’t help feeling sorry for her.
From the dramatic first sentence of the story right up to the gripping denouement, Beautiful Malice is an exhilarating read. And despite the turbulent emotions searing the pages, there is also a bittersweet inspirational theme of healing and surviving one’s emotional scars to keep living. I don’t know how kids are going to react to the darker aspects of this story, but I do know that I am very pleased with this book.