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Two women and a past
The Ice Cream Girls - Dorothy Koomson
Member Name: JOHNDMR
The Ice Cream Girls - Dorothy Koomson
Advantages: Poignant, gripping story and a compulsive page-turner
Disadvantages: The juxtaposition of past and present does take a little tuning in to at first
FIRST THINGS FIRST
Although I had never heard of the author before, I read a couple of very glowing reviews of this book online, and by sheer coincidence I found a newly-processed copy at my place of work (in a college library) later that day. Not being a great TV watcher, I was also completely unaware until then of the recent three-part dramatisation on the small screen. If the distinctly lukewarm reviews I have seen of that are anything to go by, the book seems to be far superior, one reason being that the televised version substitutes its own ending. It was apparently one the author did not care for.
Serena Gorringe and Poppy Carlisle were never really friends - but they have one thing in common. As teenagers and schoolmates, they were both attracted to one of their teachers, Marcus Halnsley, a scumbag with no redeeming features whatsoever. To his colleagues and the rest of his pupils who only know him casually he is a very good, well-respected and greatly admired master. He is also good at putting on an act. Divorced with one small son, he has evidently put his family days behind him and only a few people - in fact, perhaps only the two main characters themselves - are aware what an obnoxious, predatory individual he has become. He delights in callously and unashamedly exploiting both girls for sex and playing one off against the other, telling each one at different times that she is the new love of his life and he is going to dump the other.
The title of the book, by the way, comes from a photograph he takes of them in provocatively skimpy swimsuits on the seafront at Brighton, eating ice creams. These snaps include one of them eating each others' ices, and one of them kissing each other on the lips. Both of them find this utterly distasteful, but such is the brute power he exerts over them that they are afraid to refuse to pose as he tells them.
This is where I have to choose my words with great care in order to avoid a spoiler. Before long Marcus gets what he so richly deserved. There is a horrific incident, the aftermath of which scars their lives for ever. They then find themselves hounded by the media, especially after the sleazy pictures are published and they are branded 'the ice cream girls' for posterity. We find out what everybody thinks has happened in the first few pages, thanks to a couple of (fictional) news cuttings reporting the incident.
Part of the story is told in flashbacks, alternating with present day events. Successive chapters are told by Serena and Poppy, each in the first person, so the reader is faced with an often conflicting version of events. It is a fairly unusual way of telling the story - but a very effective one.
Twenty years pass. By then Serena is happily married to a kind, charming husband and they have two delightful young children. Poppy has led a very different, far less charmed life. However, Serena is still haunted by what happened when she was only nineteen. One day, she fears, it will all catch up with her. Her worries increase when she is pulled over by the police for a minor traffic offence, and even more so when she fears she is being stalked. Her husband is unaware of her past, and when he finds out, their marriage is briefly threatened and comes within an inch of total destruction. Meanwhile Poppy considers herself to have been a victim of circumstances beyond her control. Once she is at liberty and in a position to set the record straight, as she sees it, she is determined that the truth will out.
In effect this is a psychological crime story, and also a searing story of exploitation and sexual abuse. Fear not - there is no gratuitous sex or violence, something which has become all too prevalent among less skilled writers in this day and age, and it is much to Koomson's credit that she portrays the story sensitively enough to move the reader and not put him or her off with unnecessary gore.
Oh - there is a superb, very unexpected twist at the end. I for one certainly didn't see it coming.
The book is very well written, and the characters all come alive. Naturally Serena and Poppy are always in the frame, but the others - the smooth-talking but repellent Marcus, the parents, siblings, Serena's husband, and various officers of the law (I won't be too explicit, as again I don't want to give too much away) are all vital flesh and blood creatures.
I have to admit that there was a stage halfway through the book where I felt the story was beginning to go nowhere. The book is almost 500 pages long, and as is the case with so much modern fiction, I felt that a little of it could have been pruned to make a tauter, leaner story. But I knew enough by then to realise that it was going to get exciting, so I was never tempted to put it aside or, worse still, peek at the last two or three chapters in advance. I'm very glad I didn't.
Most of the reviews I have seen online already, I suspect, have been written by women. I trust I'm not the only man who's read it, as while it does largely deal with women's issues, I certainly don't think its appeal is restricted to a female readership.
Dorothy Koomson (born 1971) has written extensively for newspapers and magazines. She lives in Brighton, where most of 'The Ice Cream Girls', her seventh published novel, was set.
In an afterword she makes a very valid point in that, if the reader suspects someone he or she cares about is in an abusive situation, as Serena and Poppy were, then try to help. Even just a gentle nudge, or offering non-judgemental support, is better than nothing.
[Revised version of a review I originally posted on ciao]
Summary: An uneasy triangle - two schoolgirls and one of the masters. It doesn't merely end in tears...