Synopsis: 500 years ago: eight martyrs were burnt to death. 30 years ago: two teenagers vanished without trace. Two months ago: the vicar committed suicide. Welcome to Chapel Croft. For Rev Jack Brooks and teenage daughter Flo it’s supposed to be a fresh start. New job, new home. But, as Jack knows, the past isn’t easily forgotten. And in a close-knit community where the residents seem as proud as they are haunted by Chapel Croft’s history, Jack must tread carefully. Ancient superstitions as well as a mistrust of outsiders will be hard to overcome. Yet right away Jack has more frightening concerns. Why is Flo plagued by visions of burning girls? Who’s sending them sinister, threatening messages? And why did no one mention that the last vicar killed himself? Chapel Croft’s secrets lie deep and dark as the tomb. Jack wouldn’t touch them if not for Flo – anything to protect Flo. But the past is catching up with Chapel Croft – and with Jack. For old ghosts with scores to settle will never rest…
For the past four years, each January has brought with it a new novel from C.J. Tudor – each of which have shocked and thrilled me in equal measure. Her debut, The Chalk Man, was a cracking murder mystery with a hint of Stand by Me; this was followed by The Taking of Annie Thorne which weaved crime drama alongside a Pet Sematary-esque resurrection, and then last year was The Other People, a creepy kidnapping thriller with hints of the supernatural. This year’s release, The Burning Girls once again blurs genres and confounds expectations but if I had to give a similar single sentence elevator pitch, it would be “The Vicar of Dibley meets Broadchurch”.
There’s no denying that Tudor is an exceptional writer, she has an uncanny knack for domesticating horror and gore to make it even more unsettling for the reader. Set in the quiet hamlet of Chapel Croft in East Sussex, new vicar Jack Brooks and her teenage daughter Flo find themselves thrust into mysteries regarding the disappearance of two teen girls in the nineties, the recent death of the previous vicar and the creepy spirits of the Burning Girls. As ever, Tudor weaves these various plot threads together in a tight narrative that reveals connectivity between the past and the present and allows for another jaw-dropping twist ending. While Tudor often gets praise for her similarities to Stephen King, it is her ability to pull the rug out from underneath the reader that I admire the most, but unlike M. Night Shyamalan, it never feels inorganic or a gimmick but more of a natural talent.
Tudor also does a great job at building up atmosphere, both in terms of crafting a sense of tension and in evoking location. Chapel Croft feels like a real breathable place and Tudor is able to convey the history of the place alongside the sense of isolation and village gossip. History is an important element of this novel and fuels the narrative as Reverend Brooks finds herself duty bound to find out what happened to the two girls thirty years ago. Her own past plays an important role in her investigation and once the reader finds out more about her own history, you can re-read certain sequences in the book with an entirely different interpretation of events. Out of all of her books, this one is probably the most Shyamalan-esque of the lot as the ramifications of the climactic reveals run through the narrative like a stick of rock, and as such, it is possibly the best novel suited for a cinematic or television adaptation.
As with most of her previous novels, the supernatural elements to the story are vague and undefined – left to the reader’s interpretation of whether they were real or not – which adds to the unsettling nature of the tale. With one foot in the paranormal and the other wedged in the mundane, Tudor’s book have a distinct juxtaposition that straddles the line between horror and thriller. Her characters are also refreshingly complex and engaging; particularly Reverend Brooks. Without wanting to spoil too much, she is the most complicated and interesting protagonist that C.J Tudor has created and I’d love to see where her story took her next. I loved how Tudor consistently played with my prejudice and expectations with the character and her role as a religious figure; right from the opening of assuming she was a male because she was a vicar called Jack, to some of her actions at the end of the novel. I literally fell into every trap she laid as an author, reacting to the story exactly as she hoped I would.
The Burning Girls is quite possibly C.J Tudor’s best work yet, and I have to add the “yet” as she is an author who continually surpasses expectations. With four books under her belt, Tudor has developed a certain ‘house style’ which I have come to expect and enjoy immensely. While she does a fantastic job at establishing a sinister atmosphere, it is her brilliance at creating a complex plot and dropping each reveal with pitch-perfect precision that really impresses me as a reader. This is an amazingly well-written novel with a plot that lingers in the mind days after you’ve finished the book. I can’t wait until next January to continue with my C.J Tudor tradition / obsession.
Score – ★★★★★
The Burning Girls is available as an eBook from Amazon Kindle, or collected in a physical format on Amazon and all good bookstores. C.J. Tudor’s previous novels, The Chalk Man, The Taking of Annie Thorne and The Other People are also still available.