Author: Erin Saldin
Genre: Contemporary, Thriller, Young Adult
Publication date: February 1st 2012
Hardcover: 348 pages
Erin Saldin’s The Girls of No Return is a lacerating young adult debut about girls, knives, and redemption. The Alice Marshall School, set within a glorious 2-million acre wilderness area, is a place where teenage girls are sent to escape their histories and themselves. Lida Wallace has tried to negate herself in every way possible. At Alice Marshall, she meets Elsa Boone, Jules, and Gia Longchamps, whose glamour entrances the entire camp. As the girls prepare for a wilderness trek, Lida is both thrilled and terrified to be chosen as Gia’s friend. Everyone has their secrets – the “Things” they try to protect; and when those come out, the knives do as well.
Stand alone or series: Stand alone
How did I get this book: Bought
Why did I read this book: I love Contemporary YA and I am always on the look-out for different ones and this sounded like just the thing.
The Alice Marshall School is a school for troubled girls, set in the remote No Return Wilderness Area, a place where these girls can both escape and confront their past. Lida is a lonely, insecure and angry young girl who is sent to the school by her family (father and stepmother), as a last-resort reaction to an undisclosed event. The “Thing” – what brought each and every girl to the school – is what they must face.
The Girls of No Return is an epistolary novel as Lida is sitting down to write about her time at the school from a point in the future. It is obvious that something really serious went down and Lida is still trying to get over it by writing the truth about it. Her aim is to reflect upon the actions that led to the violent outcome hinted at the beginning of the novel. Thus, Lida carefully reveals the circumstances and events that surrounded her short stay at the school. Starting with her arrival and her daily routine, continuing with her getting to know the other girls especially Boone, the troublemaker who shares her cabin and Gia, a beautiful and manipulative newcomer. Little by little, Lida paints a portrait of these girls and their lives at the School building up the story toward the moment of revelation about what went on and how that changed their lives forever.
There are many things to praise with regards to The Girls of No Return. There is a self-assured quality when it came to the writing which is all the more impressive considering that Erin Saldin is a debut author and the fantastic setting was really well-incorporated to the story and effectively became an intrinsic part of the narrative. I also appreciated Lida’s arc and how she had to confront her past, analyse her actions and try to heal in order to move on. The fact that the ending is a realistic depiction of how hard it is to do so and it was not completely ponies-and-sunshine is another commendable aspect of the novel.
That said, I am usually a fan of the epistolary narrative but I am slightly uncertain that it truly worked here: considering how Lida is writing it all down in order to “tell the truth”, there was a considerable amount of forced tension stemming from information that was kept out. At times, it is easy to understand WHY given how Lida was trying to avoid confronting things but often they were rather clumsy (there is this particular moment toward the end of the narrative where people are speaking to Lida and kept interrupting their own narrative for no reason, exactly where they would be revealing certain facts which felt really, really contrived).
Beyond that, I have the overwhelming impression that I have read it all before when it comnes to the characters and the story itself. In fact, I can’t help but to think that for the seasoned ContempYA reader, there is nothing really new to be found here. Despite the fact that Lida is keeping two secrets from the reader (the Thing that brought her to the School, the Thing that happened there), there was enough recognisable patterns in her narrative that it is easy to successfully guess both, therefore removing part of the tension from what is supposed to be a suspense novel. It is equally easy to pin each and every character down from the start as they were all very conventional: the troubled girl with a tortured past; the tough girl who is not really that tough; the girl that is popular and obviously bad news to everybody but the oblivious main character, etc.
Which brings me to one aspect of the novel that saddened me a little. Lida’s obliviousness to Gia’s real character was fascinating in itself and it is obvious that she is developing romantic feelings for the girl. It is in the way that she describes Gia, the way she wants to be regarded by her, the way she feels whenever Gia touches her. Although Lida eventually comes to realise the nature of her feelings for Gia, I felt that this aspect of the story was never addressed directly except for ONE conversation between Gia and Lida about girls getting together at the school that went like this (bold is mine):
“But of course you’ve seen the “couples” around the school. Right? Holding hands at campfire, sneaking off from the Smokers’ Beach late at night? Tell me you’ve seen them.” She was laughing at me, and I blushed. “Don’t worry. It’s just playacting. As soon as they get out of here, these girls will go back to their lives and boyfriends and random hookups. But while they’re here….” Goa shrugged. “Anything goes.”
Gia elbowed me in the side. “Don’t worry about it, Lida. It’s as real as dreams.” She winked, and was gone.
Because this is the only real time that the LGBT aspect of the story was addressed directly, it made me sad that the only voice we heard on the subject was that of the villain character which was so pointedly distorted. I am not postulating that every single thing MUST be addressed in a book, but when such a powerful scene about a subject that is so commonly misrepresented in real life is played out so pointedly, I do wish there was a counterpoint. Although I will grant that it can certainly be argued that the very fact that it was the villain who voiced this, is a counterpoint in itself.
In the end though, this was but one of the reasons why I was sadly disappointed with The Girls of No Return.
Notable Quotes/ Parts:
She took out the underwear, the socks, the rain poncho, the flashlight. She took out first one hiking boot, and then the other. She took out the sock that I had stuffed in the second boot, and pulled out the knife.
A long, silent minute passed.
“We understand that you may have come here with old ways of being, old patterns of behavior, old habits.”
Beverly tapped the knife with her index finger without looking down at it.
“Those behaviors that might endanger yourself or others are cause for immediate expulsion.”
She held the knife in front of her face and stared at me until I met her gaze. It was unflinching. I nodded.
Beverly placed the knife next to her on the chair and repacked my bag. Then she stood up and held out her hand. “Welcome to Alice Marshall,” she said.
Rating: 5 – Meh.
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