The Burning Girls
by C.J. Tudor
reviewed by Robert Welbourn
In the summer of 2005 I turned 18. I finished my A Levels, and before I started my first year at University, I went on my last family holiday. It was me, my mum, my step-dad, and my eldest brother. We spent a week in Spain at a villa belonging to a friend of my step-dad, not doing a great deal other than floating around in the pool, or lounging in the sun by its side. Three things were constant in my life that week, much as they were before, and for a long time afterwards: cigarettes, beer, and books.
In the intervening years, a lot has changed; I went to uni and got my degree (a BA in English Literature). Years later, I got off my arse and got my MA, again in English Literature. I’ve given up alcohol; as I type it’s nearly a year sober for me, which – if I’m being very honest – has been very difficult. I’ve all but given up cigarettes (funnily enough, I’d pretty much stopped smoking, then I stopped drinking, and since then my smoking has gone through the roof). But one thing I haven’t stopped – or even slightly slowed down with – is books. In fact, since those heady teenage days, I now read more than ever. 2020 – everyone’s favourite year – has just ended. That year saw me read 98 books: painfully short of 100, but far beyond my target of 68, which was the previous year’s final count.
You’re probably wondering why I’m telling you my life story in a book review. Well, in a very roundabout way, this background brings me to The Burning Girls.
That week I spent in Spain is memorable for a lot of reasons, but the one that sticks out the most – at least when I think about it – is The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown. I know I don’t have to say anything about that book, because everyone knows it. Released in 2003, I finally read The Da Vinci Code in the summer of 2005; I read the entire thing in about 18 hours. I picked it up for no other reason than that it was on the table in front of me; it was an already scorching hot morning, and being as pale as I am, I wanted to hide from direct sunlight. So I sat in a chair (under an umbrella) and picked it up. I pretty much didn’t put it back down until I was finished. The reason I’m saying this is because The Burning Girls is the first book since then that I can remember reading with such unrelenting fury.
When I was offered The Burning Girls to review, I happily said yes because C.J. Tudor has been compared to Stephen King: I’m a huge fan of the master of horror, and have recently completed my quest to read all his novels (I’m currently working my way through his short story collections). Any book is an automatic read for me as soon as I see it being compared to King. And as soon as I started The Burning Girls, it was evident those comparisons weren’t wrong.
One of the cover quotes is from King himself; another is from Lee Childs, author of the terribly successful Jack Reacher books. It’s pertinent that these two authors have praised this book, because to me it reads as if they teamed up to write it. The Burning Girls has the horror and grotesquerie of King, with the speed and plot style of Childs, and I loved the combination.
Each chapter – and there are more than 60 of them, every single one incredibly short and punchy – ends on a cliffhanger: you just have to keep reading. I don’t usually subscribe to phrases such as “page turner”. I have my own version, which is a ‘cold bath book’ – most of you can probably guess what I mean, but to those who aren’t in the know, this is the kind of book that you start reading in the bath, and before you know it, three hours have passed and the water you’re lying in is freezing cold. You haven’t even noticed the temperature change – and as soon as you do you have to escape it! But the moment you’re dry you find yourself in bed, or curled up in a comfy armchair, and you’re reading once more. I could not stop reading this book.
Tudor’s characters are all so real, so three dimensional, that you can almost imagine yourself living with them in the small village of Chapel Croft. Jack Brooks (the reverend through whose eyes we see events unfold) is wonderfully alive. She’s vibrant, personal, personable – as a preacher should be – and an excellent vessel for the narrative. Her main sidekick is her fifteen-year old daughter Florence. A sometimes cliché teenage rebel, Florence’s cynicism and sarcastic wit are the perfect foil to Jack’s genuine optimism. Despite Jack being the mother and Florence the daughter, you can almost imagine their roles being reversed; Jack as the naive, hopeful, cheerful character who seems almost childish in her wonderment, with Florence as the world weary, beaten down middle-aged working woman. Their chemistry is electric, and you really feel part of their small family as you read their story.
At times the story does feel a bit like a US army scorched-earth policy – there’s often a scatter-gun approach to events, almost as if someone challenged Tudor to include as many King-esque and Childs-esque plot points as possible. On this count, she wins the gold medal; but although it can be a bit heavy-handed, and not every plot point lands, the ones that do are sufficiently horrible and riveting – in equal measure – to make the whole story come together. Childs-esque cliff hangers and the plot speed of a Concorde keep you on the edge of your seat; this is a book that grabs you and doesn’t let go until the final page, and the revelations keep coming right down to the final words. Even when you’ve finished and put this book down, it’ll take a minute to get your pulse back down to a safe level and regulate your breathing.
I really enjoyed this book, and definitely recommend it. If you’ve glanced its way due to the comparisons to King, or the cover copy from King, Childs, and Harlan Coben, then go with your gut and give it a read. I promise you won’t regret it.