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Content warning for this book: graphic violence; child abuse; sexism; references to war, murder, drugs; suicidal ideation.

The Girl coverThe Girl is Victory Witherkeigh’s debut novel. Its protagonist’s name is never revealed; she is only ever referred to as “the girl.” Like the author, she is Filipino American and grows up in Los Angeles in the 1990s. The girl’s parents plainly never wanted a daughter and make this very clear to her. Her little brother is pampered, while she suffers random physical and emotional abuse throughout her childhood and adolescence.

The novel’s supernatural element adds another layer to all this, and can be read as metaphor as well as fantasy: the girl retains “memories” of a Filipino consecration ceremony for her, where a soothsayer went into a weird trance and the walls began to bleed. Furthermore, all her life the girl has been benevolently watched by a gentleman with red eyes—who, in a sort of frame story interspersed with the narrative of her growing up, is revealed to be Death (p. 89). This is significant in two ways: on the one hand, the girl’s family keeps referring to her as “evil” and “a demon,” and Death does call her one of his servants; on the other hand, the girl experiences such violence at the hands of close relatives (in this case, especially her American grandfather, a former soldier) that she doesn’t “want to be here anymore” (p. 31). Her grandmother takes this as a cue to send her back to her parents after a prolonged stay, but the way the girl repeats her words in response definitely makes it sound more like a death wish.

From the very beginning, the reader is kept in a state of suspense between these possible interpretations of the novel’s demonic element as either fantasy or metaphor. Growing up, the girl displays the typical magical thinking of childhood (animism, believing that the moon is following her, and so on), which lends extra significance to everything that happens to her. Without this fantastical layer, her childhood experiences are far from extraordinary, even though there is much abuse and a clear lack of moral and emotional guidance, which obviously often leaves her confused and at a loss. Catholic school is both a status symbol and a punishment; she wishes bad things to happen to her lola (her Filipino grandmother), and the lola is admitted to hospital; she regrets what she interprets as a curse or spell and wishes the lola to wake up, and she does (p. 57). Her parents sign her up for martial arts classes, and she enjoys them, but this is interpreted as “the relish of causing pain” (p. 67)—and immediately assigned to the context of her demonic nature.

Often, I found myself feeling compassion for this lost creature. When she has her first period at the young age of ten, her mother never explains her body to her or how to use “all the equipment” (p. 87); instead she only bombards the protagonist with statements like, “[…] And remember, my sister got pregnant as a teenager!” The girl is a child, and she is in shock. She doesn’t understand what’s happening to her, and yet she never receives any real information about her body, puberty, sex, intimacy, pregnancy, contraception, anything. As in most other situations the girl experiences, the mother just doesn’t engage, never showing any emotions outside anger and resentment.

“Educating” herself using her parents’ porn, which they casually leave around the house, the girl develops a neutral, unfazed stance towards sexuality, which seems to both weirdly impress her peers and simultaneously make her stand out as a weirdo. She makes friends, one of whom ditches her for a more popular clique. She develops crushes on boys, but ends up being neglected, bullied, and, in a rapidly snowballing series of events she never does anything to prevent, sexually abused by a group of schoolboys, according to whose rape-culture logic she enjoys being groped. She never defends herself, even though she has martial arts training.

One summer, the mother takes the girl and her younger brother on a trip to Manila, where the girl learns how wealthy (and how exploitative) her Filipino family is. She steals an antique spearhead that she finds hidden in a hollowed-out occult book. Later, in the frame story, Death reveals a piece of her family history to her that is entwined with the origin of the spear. The object is also a pivotal artefact in Filipino history and mythology: the spearhead once belonged to Lapulapu, the Mactan chieftain who defeated the Portuguese coloniser Magellan in battle and thus delayed the European conquest of his people by decades. The spearhead has been anointed with blood and blessed by the Goddess of the Sea and Death. Indeed, its purpose was to kill Magellan himself, winning a battle while also providing “symbolism to the thousands that came after as a middle finger to Colonialism and the Conquistadors” (p. 229). It’s definitely a weapon of empowerment, emancipation, and vengeance.

The girl’s abuse and depression, however, continue throughout high school. All this time, she toys with the thought of taking up the spear and accepting her demonic fate, but shies away from it. She keeps hoping that her family will at some point accept and love her. Her mother’s behaviour is especially hurtful in its randomness. The mother provides training courses and expensive gifts, then takes them away on a whim. Instead of physical or emotional closeness, there is distance and taboo. Her only bits of occasional advice are about how to use men for personal gain.

A passage that sticks out for me is a mention of the Columbine school shooting:

This was the first time anyone even dreamed that could happen. Kids could get to a point where they snapped from being relentlessly prodded and poked. Told that they were nothing and no one, they set out to show that those people were wrong (p. 169).

Even though the girl often harbours thoughts like these—“Remember, you are nothing. Remember, they can replace you. Remember, they would not miss you” (p. 172)—and from time to time contemplates suicide (p. 187), she never “snaps” in a way that would involve lashing out at people, or making anyone else suffer. Her own violence is turned inward and manifests as low self-esteem, self-accusation, and self-abasement. The creature she was prophesied to become—manipulative, desired but unlikeable, only ever pushing others away and bringing bad luck—sounds much more like a description of her mother, really.

So what does she choose to become instead? In a sudden decision on her first day at her college campus, the girl finally decides to accept what she has always been told—that she is a demon—and, for the first time separated from her abusive family, turn against them. This is only shown in the very last sentence of the book, during a brief phone call with her mother: “‘Yes, Mom,’” the demon said, head held high. ‘I feel great …’” (p. 350)

As an act of empowerment and emancipation, this very short, very abrupt, and simultaneously weirdly tentative step (ending the whole book on an ellipsis) left me feeling a bit frustrated. For a very long and detailed coming-of-age story that at points was very hard to read because of the graphic violence, or that almost becomes boring during the overly drawn-out accounts of the girl’s pining for abusive boys, the narrative simply sort of fizzles out at the end. Even when I got a bit irritated reading the whimsical dialogue with Death (at one point they have hot chocolate with marshmallows and whipped cream), I was always looking forward to seeing what would happen when the girl made her choice. Obviously, I hoped she would take her life into her own hands, start liking herself, and on that basis find out that she is indeed likeable. I can only hope that this is what the author implies by ending the novel with an ellipsis—that all of this (however long-winded and mundane, and however abrupt and traumatic in other places) was only the beginning of a very long journey, perhaps one towards healing.

Phoenix Scholz is based in Vienna, Austria. They have published articles on science fiction, weird fiction, and superhero comics in Alluvium and On Infinite Earths as well as short stories in The Big Click, Visionarium, Wyrd Daze, and Open Polyversity. Their first published novelettino is Dun da de Sewolawen: The Heart of Silence. They blog at
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