Tuesday, April 2, 2013

The Different Girl by Gordon Dahlquist

Veronika lives with three other girls on an isolated island, along with Irene and Robbert who take care of them. Veronika, Caroline, Isobel, and Eleanor are all very different looking girls but are also very much the same. Veronika's hair is red, while Caroline has brown hair, Isobel is blond, and Eleanor's hair is black. All four have been on the island as long as they can remember. They have been told by Irene and Robbert that they are orphans and that their parents died in the same plane accident on a nearby island.

The girls are woken every morning by Irene from a dreamless sleep and after breakfast go for walks around the island. At first, all would go on the same walk but gradually Irene would teach them to go for walks by themselves and explore their surroundings.

One evening after a severe storm, Irene and the four girls go for a walk along the beach. Veronika discovers a girl face down in the grass near the bush. It is immediately apparent to the four girls that this girl is not like them. Seriously injured, the girl is taken to their classroom and is treated for her injuries. Veronika and the rest of the girls are told to stay away from this girl but eventually the girl, whose name is May and the four island girls meet. May is horrified by what they are and is angry and mean to them.

As Veronika tells her story, we learn what the four girls are, and that they are basically hiding from the world on this island. This makes May's leaving the island and impossibility because Irene and Robbert are fearful that she will tell others what she saw on the island. However, they may be too late to save their precious experiment on a hidden island, regardless of what they decide about May.

Gordon Dahlquist is a playwright and novelist and has indicated that this book began as a libretto for an opera many years ago! Told in Veronika's simple, direct voice, Dahlquist effectively captures the isolated and strange life of these unique four girls. Very quickly, the reader understands just what the four girls are and how they are experiencing the world around them.

However, using Veronika as a narrator is also the main difficulty with this novel. We are see the world through Veronika's eyes and therefore, we have a very limited understanding of what is going on, since Veronika's existence is so narrow. This means the reader knows only what Veronika knows. Initially, this sets up the mystery of who or what Veronika and the girls are but this is quickly resolved by the end of the first chapter (and unfortunately, is given away by the cover of the novel). This then leads into a second problem of how everyone will react to the appearance of May and how the problem of May will be resolved. However, the appearance and resolution of a third problem, that of the appearance of more people to their secret island,  is a muted experience for the reader because we experience it through Veronika who is in hiding. This all makes for a disappointing ending.

Dahlquist gives us hints at what the outside world is like when May tells the girls that people hate them and that they are destroyed.
"'I didn't know anything,' said May. 'I'd only heard, but hearing isn't real -- and everyone knows not to trust it. and nothing like that -- like you -- is tolerated, not any more,not in any towns. ...."
This leads us to understand that Irene and Robbert came to the island to escape harm and to continue their experiment unmolested.

May is a disappointing character as she is never truly developed - again likely because we are viewing her through the eyes of Veronika. The same applies to Robbert who just seems to be a filler character.

The cover will lead many readers to pick up the novel, but most will be disappointed with the storyline, the lack of character development and the hanging ending.

Book Details:
The Different Girl by Gordon Dahlquist
Toronto: Dutton Books    2013
230 pp.

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