The Ice Cream Girls by Dorothy Koomson

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The Ice Cream Girls by Dorothy Koomson

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Category: Crime
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Trish Simpson-Davis
Reviewed by Trish Simpson-Davis
Summary: Stunning. Don't be misled by the vanilla-flavoured cover: a chillingly convincing psychological whodunnit with the ice melting unexpectedly at the end.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 452 Date: February 2010
Publisher: Sphere
ISBN: 978-1847443649

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I don't generally read in the psychological thriller genre, so I'm not sure about such a label for this book, but its gripping edginess certainly includes an emphasis on mind games played on the reader, as much as between the characters. The plot is brilliantly constructed to turn full circle, yet it never seems contrived. The dialogue crackles with tension, with not a syllable out of place. Alice Sebold impressed me with her imaginative realism in the memorable The Lovely Bones; in my view Dorothy Koomson's imagination and empathy for her characters, trapped into the chilling fall-out of tragic events, is even stronger.

Poppy and Serena, labelled The Ice Cream Girls by a rapacious press, have their young lives shattered by the man they shared, a teacher in a position of trust, who controlled them in the worst possible ways. The girls are trapped as victims because neither has the assertiveness or maturity to handle the situation. Chance intervenes to escalate an inevitable situation. Now twenty years on, the traumatic events have profoundly affected the emotional stability of each girl, though their lives have taken almost diametrically opposed courses.

Serena is an immediately appealing character, a woman in a rock-solid marriage who has seemingly transcended the tragedy. Her home and family is the only place in the book where we can relax. Underneath, however, we find that her efforts to forget are only partial blocks as she paddles like mad to stay afloat. I'm sure I'm not the only reader who wondered just how I would react under similar circumstances.

Poppy takes more getting used to, for in order to survive, she has assumed an abrasive, resentful persona. It seems that one or other of the women must be lying in their account of events, and when Poppy starts to stalk her, our sympathies lay with the well-named Serena. Poppy's vulnerability is revealed more slowly: our growing sympathy is carefully drip-fed by the author. Eventually the reader reaches a point where each woman seems worthy of our sympathy, and from then on, the whodunnit question puts us between a rock and a hard place. This uncomfortable feeling infects the story with so much tension, that breaking off from reading to do anything else is well-nigh impossible!

This novel is also about family relationships, depicted in shades from subtle to clashing. I guess I held my breath because the two women teeter a fine line between life carrying on normally and tipping over into the abyss. The pressure of small words or happenings irretrievably alters dynamics and undermines family stability. In their situation, trust breaks down because none of the family can bear to think through the implications or talk about them, and the girls are left unsupported. I can only say that I found this all totally convincing.

I came away with a better understanding of Dorothy Koomsoon's chilling themes – victims and controllers, love and violence, families under pressure and the power of chance events to hold sway of our lives. There but for the grace of God go any of us.

The Bookbag would like to thank Sphere for sending this book. We also have a review of The Friend by Dorothy Koomson.

If you enjoy psychological thrillers, you might like to consider three teen authors: Tabitha Suzuma, Nicola Morgan or Anne Cassidy. For adults, Jane Casey, Karin Alvtegen, Katy Gardner or Nicci French have been well reviewed by The Bookbag. Away from the Crime bookshelf, Nell Leyshon depicts a family breakdown in Devotion. Finally, Alice Sebold explores the aftermath of her rape as a student in Lucky.

Booklists.jpg The Ice Cream Girls by Dorothy Koomson is in the Bookbag's Christmas Gift Recommendations 2010.

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