The Tenth Girl by Sara Faring
Simmering in Patagonian myth, The Tenth Girl is a gothic psychological thriller with a haunting twist.
At the very southern tip of South America looms an isolated finishing school. Legend has it that the land will curse those who settle there. But for Mavi—a bold Buenos Aires native fleeing the military regime that took her mother—it offers an escape to a new life as a young teacher to Argentina’s elite girls.
Mavi tries to embrace the strangeness of the imposing house—despite warnings not to roam at night, threats from an enigmatic young man, and rumors of mysterious Others. But one of Mavi’s ten students is missing, and when students and teachers alike begin to behave as if possessed, the forces haunting this unholy cliff will no longer be ignored.
One of these spirits holds a secret that could unravel Mavi’s existence. In order to survive she must solve a cosmic mystery—and then fight for her life.
If this book excels in anything, it’s atmosphere.
Of all the things in The Tenth Girl, I appreciate Sara Faring’s commitment to atmosphere the most. From the very first pages, Mavi’s life in this haunting school is shadowed by mystery and misery in a way that’s nearly tangible. In such a remote place, where ice and gloom form the bulk of the landscape, and the halls are host to all manner of beings, some mortal, some otherwise, the reader gets the impression something dangerous and unearthly is a foot. As far as setting the tone goes, it’s an incredible achievement, pulled off seamlessly.
I really do take notice, too, when another author shows such strength in prose. Sinking into the setting is a crucial part of enjoying a book (at least for me), and I’m always delighted when I discover I can dive in so seamlessly. All the better for novels in the horror/thriller categories, too! Atmosphere plays a critical role in those genres in particular, and without it, this read just wouldn’t be the same.
“Purpose is a set of wings, strapped to the unexceptional so they can fly.”
The characters, too, held my attention. I see some reviewers saying they didn’t like anyone, and I can understand that. None of the characters are particularly likable, and more than a few feel flat. But within the ultimate context of the plot, and seeing as The Tenth Girl pushes the worst of humans to the forefront, examining just how terrible they can be when left to their own devices, a lot of the character structure made narrative sense.
Plus, I particularly liked the ways in which Mavi came to assert herself. Rather than accept the uncanny in the school, she makes an active effort to protect the students and see everyone to safety. At the very same time, though, she’s eighteen and out of her depth where finishing schools and ghostly mysteries are concerned. It leaves her hanging between points of vulnerability and determination that I really appreciated.
Her counterpoint, Angel, also held my interest. He (and I use this pronoun only because Angel is not referred to with pronouns save when pretending to be Dom) plays a role that forces him to confront his best impulses and worst mistakes, and has to decide what in this world matters most to him. I do love a character examining their own morality. Better yet, I love a character examining their own morality in the middle of a pivotal point, where they could swing toward any which way.
In spite of these things, though, The Tenth Girl unravels too easily.
On the mild side, I discovered that the ending gave me whiplash, in a way. In some ways, I suspected it was coming. The naked hardcover seems curious at first glance, and becomes painfully relevant past a certain point in the book (I recommend not looking until you’ve finished it, just to be certain you won’t spoil it for yourself). On the other hand, though, the delivery was unsteady, even jarring, and it forced the final quarter of the book into a rush to tie up all the threads. What had been a slow, creeping sort of read appropriate for horror shifted into a madcap sprint, upending everything that had come before. In some ways, it made me feel cheated. I invested my time and brain cells into unraveling the mystery, and this is where it leads? Down a tiny sideways alley most readers would never find without help?
I’m a firm believer that mysteries and plot twists should make perfect sense in hindsight. I should be able to spot the clues hidden along the way when I look back. In this case, though, it was more left field than foreshadowing, especially since what foreshadowing existed was buried under layers of misdirection and confusion.
More importantly, though, I think the book deeply mishandled its portrayal of indigenous people. Mayra Sigwalt sums it up in her Goodreads review with more personal knowledge than I have to offer, and the biggest point is this: the Zapuche people of the book are presented as savage and primitive people who rely on bloody sacrifice to curse and protect the land. It’s a racist, colonialist view that goes unchallenged, which never ceases to be frustrating. Couple that with the main character’s apparent Zapuche heritage that she never explores, and the history of the school as a rich white kids’ school staffed by the natives whose land it lies on, and you end up with a glaring disappointment marring the rich gothic experience the summary promises.
I wish I enjoyed it more, but it’s difficult to get past my disappointment.
What began as a strong read tumbled into disrepair, and ultimately, I don’t feel completely satisfied. The sudden shift in pacing was jarring. The twist undid a great deal of hard work, and raised too many questions too quickly. And the failure to interrogate the portrayal of indigenous people as savage and unintelligent? Absolutely a strike against the book, no questions asked. While I don’t believe every OwnVoices book needs to be an issue book (let OwnVoices authors tell stories not centered on challenges to their identity!), I still think those elements were a poor choice. Irresponsible, really. Even in a book that’s structured in a way meant to explore the worst in the people (and I do mean worst), this could have been handled better.
So at the start, The Tenth Girl had promise. The rich atmosphere pulled me in, and the mystery/horror elements kept me guessing. But here we are. I can’t overlook the last quarter of the book changing the tone so rapidly, and I can’t let the two-dimensional, cruel framing of the indigenous people in the book slide. What I predicted to be a nearly five star read dropped quickly.
Bookish disappointment sucks, huh?
CW: loss of a loved one, smoking, suicide, child death, anti-Semitism, racism, rape, ableism, pedophilia, animal death, domestic abuse, child abuse, self-harm, gore, miscarriage