Imaginary Girls by Nova Ren Suma (June 14, 2011, Dutton)
Review by Laura Beutler
If Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier and The River King by Alice Hoffman had a baby, the result would be Imaginary Girls by Nova Ren Suma. You know...if books could have babies. Imaginary Girls is the perfect mix of creepy and unsettling, with just enough magical realism to convince you that anything is possible. From the first paragraph, I was completely hooked.
(Also, I may never go swimming again. I am very happy I have a younger brother and not an older sister. Very happy.)
Happy Plot Summary Time
Chloe trusts her older sister, Ruby, completely. So when, after a party at the reservoir, Ruby announces that Chloe can never drown, Chloe believes her. Ruby tells the group that Chloe will swim across the reservoir and back, bringing back a souvenir from the drowned town of Olive, hidden beneath the reservoir’s dark surface. But halfway across, Chloe discovers something horrible, her classmate, London Hayes, floating in the water, drowned.
In the aftermath of London’s death, Chloe is sent to live with her father. But Ruby isn’t going to give Chloe up without a fight.
When Chloe returns to town, two years later, she begins to uncover the mystery of London’s death and Olive’s secrets. What follows is the perfect blend of sisterly love and the surreal, as Chloe peels back the layers of deception that surround her sister and discovers the truth.
To talk about Imaginary Girls, I first have to explain magical realism. Otherwise, nothing I say about the town will make any sense at all. And we are all about making sense here at MHLit. Magical realist texts are much like other works of realistic fiction, but with a healthy spoonful of the fantastical mixed in. For example, a character might have telepathic or telekinetic abilities in a novel that is otherwise true to life. Since Nova Ren Suma used this technique, Ruby’s power over others isn’t just peer pressure, like my ability to force my brother to kill spiders when I am too lazy to get up and do it myself; but rather, it’s a supernatural force that compels the people in Ruby’s life to follow her will. The same thing is true for Olive: this town has a consciousness and can be considered a character, not just a setting. Olive can reach out and effect Ruby and Chloe’s lives. I love the depth that magical realism adds to Imaginary Girls.
Ruby fascinated me. She’s sultry, seductive, and absolutely terrifying. Picture the most popular girl at your high school, that table in the lunchroom where she sits every day, the crowd of people that gather around her and follow her from class to class, and then magnify her power until it becomes malicious, like a walking nightmare. Ruby’s abilities are surreal and otherworldly. She can bend reality, and she does, often on a whim to satisfy momentary desires. When you’re a total literature nerd like I am, you read about Ruby’s signature shade of red lipstick and her omnipresent sunglasses and you think, “Ruby is the opposite of nature, the opposite of Olive,” setting the two up nicely as warring forces.
When water flooded into Olive, the town was both destroyed and preserved. Olive doesn’t just sit there; it acts on Ruby and Chloe’s lives to restore balance. If something is taken, something has to be given back. Though I can’t really tell you what that means without lots of spoilers, I can tell you is that Olive is my favorite character. Such is the glory of magical realism. The town isn’t a mere setting. It is a character in its own right. When the water rushed in, the town woke up. Olive is creepy, at one point reaching out with watery hands toward Ruby and Chloe’s home. I really love Olive (but I will never look at floodwater the same way again).
Nova Ren Suma’s writing is powerful and haunting. Imaginary Girls is one of those novels you keep thinking about days, weeks, months after you’ve read it. It’s also a book I’ll have two copies of--one for marking up with a pencil and a highlighter, and one I keep as a Pretty Copy. Sometimes I read a novel and think, Where has this author been hiding? I thought that when I finished Imaginary Girls. I’m now reading her middle grade novel, Dani Noir, and I’m eager to see what she comes up with next.
I bought red lipstick this week, just to try it out. I didn’t think anything of it until I got into the car. I took a look at the tube and saw the name of the color, “Refined Ruby.” I found myself wondering what Ruby would think, or if this was her color, as I put some on and drove home. If a book can have that kind of effect on me, it’s definitely something everyone should read. And that means you.
Would you like to read an excerpt? Of course you would.