Three years ago, 15-year-old Pen Sheppard and her friend Tracey Cuttmore were involved in the murder of a policeman. Tracey, it seems, was the one who pulled the trigger – but what exactly did Pen do? The town graffiti calls both of them murderers. So Pen is only too happy to get out of town, and away from her mother’s endless line of dead-beat boyfriends, taking up a bursary to study law at a distant university. But one term later, she’s back in town. There have been deaths at the residential college, and Pen herself has been badly injured, so much so that she’s in line for compensation from the residential college. Here she is sitting in the office of the psychiatrist she saw after the first murder, not she says, because she needs help, but because the college wants a report on the psychological effects of the trauma she’s been through.
This story could be told a hundred different ways, says Pen.
She’s an unreliable narrator, and a very intriguing one. What’s naiveté, what’s self-protection, and what’s calculation?
Murder, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.
No, not really.
Pen’s first term in the residential college is a familiar story: various personalities jostling for position in the hierarchy of the cool, all-night parties and hangovers, drugs and sex. She falls for Rogan, the handsome opportunist, the boy every girl wants. Then there’s the spiky troublemaker Rachel, the women’s libber Leiza, Michael the geek, Kesh the fat girl, Stoner the drug-pusher, gentle Toby, one of the few voices of reason, and the loathsome misogynist Joad. There’s the Marchmain Club and its pseudo-Oscar Wilde leader. There’s a silly running joke called The Murder Game. Someone on the campus is attacking girls with a screwdriver, though nobody but Leiza seems all that bothered about it. The atmosphere seethes not just with teenage hormones but with low-level malice and a feeling that nobody can really be known or trusted.
A girl dies, and once again Pen is involved. She’s tangled up in guilt, in the knowledge that Rogan knows more about it than he admits, and under pressure to back up a false story about the victim. Leiza organises a rally to protest violence against women, a riot breaks out, and there’s another killing. Is it to do with drug-pushing? Misogyny? The screwdriver attacks? For Pen it’s all personal. With her history, she fears the police. She’s afraid someone is trying to implicate her. She’s afraid it might be Rogan, trying to shift the blame. Or else there’s something much bigger going on, well out of her control.
It’s a gripping and very well-plotted story, but the most interesting thing is Pen herself. Her account of that term in college is interwoven with life in her one-horse hometown and her sparingly-revealed memories of what happened with Tracey. Every aspect is strong – Pen’s defeated mother and her current sleazy boyfriend, the dead-end lives of the girls Pen went to school with, stalwart Tracey, the country girl… who knew how things are. But, hearing Pen’s voice, following along with her thoughts, there are lots of times when a little alert flashes up in your mind – something in her tone, something cut short, some odd detail. Frank, the psychiatrist, feels it too. Who is Pen, really? Is she a victim? She’s “a survivor”, she says. But is she a survivor at any cost? There’s a twist in the end of the story that will leave you wondering.