Book Review: The Hollow Girl by Hillary Monahan (2017)

October 13th, 2017 7:00 am by mad mags

A shrewd interrogation of rape culture – now with dark magic!

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for violence, including sexual harassment, stalking, and rape.)

“The single most important thing to know about magic is that there is always a price. Making the impossible possible is difficult, as it should be, so I must weigh results against what I am willing to pay. It is never a gratuitous thing. This makes some people—people like Silas—disbelievers. They see my unwillingness to perform on command as a sign that the magic is untrue. Let them drown in their ignorance. When it is time for them to know a witch’s wrath, they will know it—and there will be no mistaking it.”

Seventeen-year-old Bethan Jones is a diddicoy: born to a Romany mother and a gadjo father, she was left in the care of her caravan’s wise woman, Drina, after the death of her mother Eira during childbirth. Her apprenticeship under the drabarni should have kept her safe – and might have, under other circumstances. But the chieftain’s son, Silas, has set his sights on Bethan. Silas is spoiled, entitled, and cruel; a dangerous powderkeg of toxic masculinity and male privilege that his father Wen (himself a recovering teenage bully) lacks the fortitude to extinguish.

So it’s no surprise when Silas’s sexual harassment and stalking of Bethan escalates to rape. Silas and his four cronies ambush Bethan and her would-be beau, Martyn, on the way home from market. The assault leaves Bethan physically and psychologically scarred – and desperate to save Martyn, who’s left for dead after the attack. With the help of Gran and her dark magic, Bethan just might be able to resurrect Martyn, while exacting revenge on her assailants too. She has three days to collect a finger, an eye, a nose, a tooth, and an ear from the five boys. What becomes of them after the harvest is entirely up to Bethan.

I was super-excited when I first heard of The Hollow Girl. Lately I’m really into rape revenge stories; as I said in my review of A Guide for Murdered Children, if done right, rape revenge stories can provide a satisfying outlet/alternative to real life, where rape is more likely to be excused and minimized than punished and condemned. Throw in the supernatural twist and diverse cast of characters, and I’m sold.

The Hollow Girl is a really solid story. It’s like I Spit on Your Grave meets Drag Me to Hell – but not nearly as brutal as the former, and much more culturally sensitive (read: accurate) than the former. While I appreciate the compassion with which Monahan handles the subject matter (beginning but not ending with her awesome foreword), I was hoping for a little more graphic violence and gleeful vengeance (directed at the rapists, I should add) than we actually get.

In many rape revenge stories (or at least every one I’ve read to date), the hero grapples with the morality of revenge and justice; Bethan is no exception. I anticipated this, but was still disappointed by the conclusion Bethan reached by story’s end (which I won’t discuss here, because spoilers). I kept rooting for Bethan to embrace her inner vengeance demon, but ultimately she is more Lumen than Dexter. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, necessarily. In the words of Gran, “Strength comes in many guises, Bethan. Knowing yourself, your limitations—knowing what you will and will not do, following your heart—that is strength. Enduring what you endured and still being merciful and hopeful? Also strength.”

What also impressed me about The Hollow Girl is Monahan’s deft portrayal of rape culture, as well as the aftermath of rape for survivors. While the Romany way of life may be different from many readers’ experiences, rape culture is depressingly similar across time, space, and peoples. From Wen’s “boys will be boys” excuses for his son’s behavior, to blaming the victim and equating rape with sex (in one especially heartbreaking scene, Bethan realizes that she now has to cover her hair, since she’s no longer a virgin – even though her maidenhood was taken from her, not given freely), readers will notice obvious parallels between Bethan’s society and their own.

Likewise, Monahan’s portrait of a rape survivor is brimming with compassion and insight. The book’s title describes how Bethan feels after the assault – like a ghost, an imposter, a hollow girl. Bethan struggles with connection and kindness, unable to bear even Gran’s touch (rare as it is). When Gran prophesies that Bethan will find love one day, she has to trust in the truth of the magic, for her battered psyche cannot possibly imagine trusting a man, any man, after all she’s been through. Yet, despite the violence and trauma, The Hollow Girl ends on a hopeful note. Given that one in nine girls under the age of eighteen – i.e., this book’s demographic – has been sexually assaulted by an adult, this is a Good Thing.

Pair with: The Female of the Species by Mindy McGinnis; Kady Cross’s Vigilante; and season five of Dexter.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

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