GHOST GIRLS is not a novel to read on an empty stomach. Its forays into the Asian restaurants and noodle bars of Sydney – their tastes and smells all evocatively described – will have your mouth-watering too much to concentrate. That’s the upside of the book’s authentic sensibility. The downside of that realism is that the reader can’t pretend the novel’s depiction of abused and exploited foreign students isn’t something going on right under our noses.My office is in the midst of several campuses teeming with foreign students and the best restaurants nearby are those which serve this clientele so as soon as I’d started reading GHOST GIRLS I couldn’t help but look at these kids (I’m old, to me they are all kids) with the worry that something like the book’s events could be happening to some of them.
Our journey into the world is via Sophie Sandilands: a young teacher of English to foreign students. She is the daughter of an Australian PI, now dead, and his Chinese wife who disappeared without trace many years ago. And that isn’t the only tragedy in Sophie’s background. So when one of her students commits suicide and some students are revealed not to be who they purport to be Sophie feels obligated to find out more.
What she uncovers is horrific. Not so much in a bloody way (though there is a little of that) but more in a “this kind of stuff could be going on next door and I wouldn’t know about it” way. Many of the students are under pressure from home to perform at almost impossible levels yet they struggle to make enough to live on doing the kinds of jobs available to them. Some of them make unwise if more lucrative choices and some have even that – the choice – taken out of their hands. It is confronting and heart-breaking all at the same time.
Sophie is a nuanced character who I enjoyed getting to know – not least because her love for good food and nice tea offered some much needed relief from the necessarily sombre narrative. She is tenacious and caring and if she sometimes does things that put her in jeopardy her reasoning is always sound within the context of her personal story. Other characters are equally well drawn, though not all are as delightful. The people who exploit the students only do so because of demand. And the man who represents that demand here – a middle-aged husband and father to a young girl who all-too slowly comes to realise the kind of ripple effect his base desires have – is awkwardly credible too. Perhaps because I’d already started looking at the students I see every day with fresh eyes I couldn’t help but also look at the men around me with the same new awareness. Which of you is like him?
As with all the best crime fiction GHOST GIRLS is first a ripping yarn and its exploration of modern life does nothing to undermine that. It’s lack of easy answers to the complex issues it explores is fitting: there aren’t easy answers to be had. I am impressed that this is a debut novel for Cath Ferla – it seems too assured both thematically and stylistically for that – and can’t wait to see what she delivers next.
This is the fourth book I’ve read and reviewed for the fifth Australian Women Writers Challenge. For more information about the challenge check out my challenge progress, sign up yourself or browse the Challenge’s database of reviews.
Publisher: Echo 
Length: 280 pages