The season of summer reads, dear reader, is upon us. But any ideas of a dreamy slumber will be broken for readers of Jane Healey’s muscular new novel The Ophelia Girls; by the end of reading this you’ll be wary of ever again throwing your head back in the water like the pre-Raphaelite portrait of Ophelia around which this story is based.
The tales of two summers weave seamlessly through this book, told by the equally vivid versions of a mother and her daughter. In 1973 the mother, Ruth and her group of life-loving and mischievous girlfriends decide to spend their summer in a forest, sauntering around the river while taking photos of each other in an attempt to recreate the images of painters like Rossetti and Millais; hence ‘the Ophelia Girls’.
The girls make a pact to ignore the attention of boys and explore the dreamy artistic world of flowery dresses and tragic poses while half submerged in the glowing river. As well as the water, Ruth becomes entranced with the studiously enigmatic Camille, whose serious pronouncements on life and literature play off the other girls’ flippancy; she’s as immersed in her books as the others are in their gin bottles. Healey keeps us guessing throughout, but there’s an inevitability to the tale which makes the ending more shattering in its revelations of suppressed lust and bitter tragedy.
Skip to 1997, and Ruth’s daughter Maeve is recovering from illness and a life away from the normal teenage world. Stuart, Ruth’s friend from the halcyon past, stays for the summer and seduces the increasingly lost and bewildered Maeve, a relationship as secret as that between Camille and Ruth long before. Ruth’s past is more convincingly written than Maeve’s present, and the infusion of Stuart becomes a tad dull as the book goes on. Yet this novel has a sinewy, enchanting style that draws us into the reverie-like world of the river and its dangers and, like the characters it has so bewitched, never lets us go: it’s powerful stuff.
The Ophelia Girls by Jane Healey is out now (Pan Macmillan, £16.99)