Review: GHOST GIRLS by Cath Ferla

GhostGirlsFerlaGHOST 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.


AWW2016This 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 [2016]
ISBN: 9781760401177
Length: 280 pages
Format: paperback

Review: GHOST GIRLS, Cath Ferla

 Synopsis (Echo Publishing)

Winter in Sydney. The city is brimming with foreign students. Sophie Sandilands takes a job teaching at an English language school. When one of her students leaps to her death it becomes clear that lurking within the psyche of this community is a deep sense of despair and alienation. When it is revealed that the dead woman on the pavement has stolen another’s identity, Sophie is drawn into the mystery.

Unable to resist the investigative instincts that run in her blood, Sophie finds herself unravelling a sinister operation that is trawling the foreign student market for its victims. But as Sophie works on tracking down the criminals it becomes evident that someone has knowledge of her and the disappearances in her own past. Will Sophie solve the mystery before she too becomes a ghost?

Ghost Girls richly evokes the sights, smells, tastes and sounds of Sydney’s Chinatown, and imagines dark exploitative demands behind closed suburban doors.

My Take

GHOST GIRLS took me into a world that I really hadn’t thought too much about – English language students who come to Australia, mainly from China. Many of them come with high expectations, not much money, and very homesick. I probably knew all that. But the book gives the reader a “behind the scenes” look at the sleazy Sydney underworld that preys on these students, and just how vulnerable they are.

Sophie Sandilands is part Chinese herself, brought back to the “safety” of Australia from China by her Australian father. But even then her Chinese mother disappeared and Sophie has never forgiven her father, a private investigator, for the role that he played in that.

One of the themes of the book is disappearance: David, the young boy who disappeared in a playground in Beijing while Sophie was caring for him, girls who seem to disappear without trace from the English language classes in the school where Sophie teaches. And underneath all an underworld that deals in pornography, prostitution and drug distribution.

An intriguing read.

My rating: 4.3

About the author
Cath Ferla is a multi­platform writer with a background in screenwriting and script editing, print and online journalism, educational publishing and long and short form fiction. She is also a Secondary School­qualified teacher, with teaching experience and qualifications in
the area of EAL (English as an Acquired Language). She has also lived in Beijing, China and studied Mandarin Chinese.