Beware of the woods and the dark, dank deep.
He’ll follow you home, and he won’t let you sleep.
Who are the Sawkill Girls?
Marion: the new girl. Awkward and plain, steady and dependable. Weighed down by tragedy and hungry for love she’s sure she’ll never find.
Zoey: the pariah. Luckless and lonely, hurting but hiding it. Aching with grief and dreaming of vanished girls. Maybe she’s broken—or maybe everyone else is.
Val: the queen bee. Gorgeous and privileged, ruthless and regal. Words like silk and eyes like knives, a heart made of secrets and a mouth full of lies.
Their stories come together on the island of Sawkill Rock, where gleaming horses graze in rolling pastures and cold waves crash against black cliffs. Where kids whisper the legend of an insidious monster at parties and around campfires.
Where girls have been disappearing for decades, stolen away by a ravenous evil no one has dared to fight… until now.
Wow. The fact that lights didn’t start flickering ominously and the trees weren’t shaking and clattering in the wind and gusty voices weren’t rattling off the walls and grating my ears while I was reading this book is supremely upsetting and not at all excellent if you ask me…
So, what’s this book about?
Marion Althouse arrives in the small town of Sawkill Rock with her mother and sister, Charlotte, hoping that the move would lessen the ache of their loss, now that they have to make do with the broken bits of themselves that their father has left behind. Instead, Marion soon discovers that the island’s inoffensive exterior is but a pearled shell that holds a fear so dark it has become as much a part of the island as the woods and nails and rot. Something is very, very wrong in Sawkill Rock, and it’s made manifest when Charlotte disappears—her loss, like a scythe, cutting the strings that were holding Marion upright.
Zoey Harlow, the police Chief’s daughter, would never be free of the past, never able to turn and face forward until she finds out what happened to her best friend Thora who has similarly vanished. Her restless mining for answers leads Zoey to a jarring reality: girls have been disappearing in Sawkill Rock for decades and nobody seems to care. Zoey refuses to let the blood of all these girls—with all the potential in the world—spill into nothingness. And Val Mortimer gives her a place to put all the blame and fury she’s been carrying all this time.
The Mortimer women have bought their wealth and power with all the nameless girls they’d fed to The Collector in the years since they’d let it crawl down their throats and take up residence inside their bellies. For some, the island’s own personal bogeyman may be nothing more than a rumor that time has smoothed down to the shape of a myth, but to Val Mortimer, The Collector is as real as the blood she pays him like a tithe to keep him silent.
Three girls, three wills: one to summon the monster, and two to bar his way. All is blown open, and the truth spills out like blood.
“Decades of dead girls. Poor girls and rich girls. Black and brown and white girls. All of them Sawkill girls.”
From startling insights to dizzyingly visual prose to tremendous character work to earnest approaches to identity, gender and sexuality, there’s honestly so much more than I can feasibly talk about here.
Sawkill Girls is a moody, atmospheric story that leaves a strong impression that will not wane anytime soon. It’s as sharp as a dagger and cold as a corpse. Claire LeGrand evokes her setting with tactile immediacy and deft skill, and while Sawkill Rock is an imaginary place, it still feels solidly real. She twists the most mundane scenarios into something dark and sinister, and, like the night has a way of lending weight to phantasms, the author’s words full of meaning and her descriptions brimming with potential and vibrant life make the whole alive with brutal intensity. I absolutely loved it.
But the real magic with Sawkill Girls lies with the subversions and nuances that LeGrand so craftily weaves into her yarn. Bold and illuminating, this story, which has the unmistakable shape of a dark fairy tale with the rich density of horror, centers around three young women who, all, have lost something to the monster: Marion—her sister, Zoey—her best friend, and Val—her freedom.
Sawkill Girls forces the reader to see its characters as more than their actions. Val’s character, in particular, is utterly mesmerizing. There’s a kind of stirring, an allure about her that creeps over you, and when LeGrand begins to peel away the shell around her, what we see is not exactly pretty. The Mortimer women are more a personification of hundreds of years of fear and complicity than living, breathing human beings. Every Mortimer daughter is a gift to be given—or more like livestock to be sold to the monster in the woods. This is all Val has ever known. The monster willed, and she obeyed. And the part of me that couldn’t reconcile with that sort of seemingly pitiless cruelty warried constantly with the part that understood that Val is a victim too.
But Val’s victimhood pales in view of the collateral damage that she contributes in, and the story does not allow Val to slough off her culpability for serving the monster, even if she was forced to her knees to do it. Then, Val falls in love with Marion and the carefully cultivated detachment and unconditional obedience that has been rammed down her throat for years cede their spot for gasping gnaws of panic and a heart-wrenching awareness of what she has done…and that’s where our perception of Val starts to reform itself into a new shape. Val’s arc is truly one of my favorite things about this book.
And since we’re on the subject of favorite things, it’s no secret—in the way the moon is no secret—that I can’t help but always hold stories centered around women’s relationships to each other to a higher standard. Sawkill Girls triumphs on several fronts, but it’s its careful and genuine depiction of female friendships that made this book leap and claim a spot amongst my favorite books of this year.
There are forces—that I’ll abstain from mentioning because spoilers—that attempted to pit Val, Marion and Zoey against each other, that prodded at their differences with a degree of enthusiasm that bordered on the obscene, hoping the rift between them would become a chasm. But Marion, Val and Zoey stood side by side, braced against the future—forgotten, in their determination, is all the strife between them—when they begun to recognize the power of putting their voices together against a system that strived to bully out their last defiant shred of hope.
Sawkill Girls has pretty much taken the “girl-on-girl hate” trope and smashed it against the wall. It felt very resonant in its portrayal of the misogyny that’s embedded in a culture that perpetuate the misguided notion that women are socialized to resent other women. While rivalries occur between any genders, we, unfortunately, live in a society that seems to encourage women to tear each other down for no reason other than lucrative gain and enticing drama. This is displayed all the time in social media with articles and posts that attempt to create a vicious competition—that isn’t there and should never be—between women who were all successful and brilliant and magnificent in their own right and are probably not plotting each other’s downfall.
“Girls hunger. And we’re taught, from the moment our brains can take it, that there isn’t enough food for us all.”
I also relished this book’s diversity and careful exploration of sexual identity—Marion is bisexual, Val is also queer (but no label was used), Zoey is black and asexual and has broken up with her boyfriend, Grayson, because she thinks her asexuality would be an issue (IT ISN’T! This boy would drag his ravaged body across the universe for her, okay?) Speaking of Grayson, it frankly feels so subversive to have a male lead who’s more than content taking on the responsibility of cleaning and baking and translating ambiguous latin texts, while the female leads determinedly take on the world, adventuring with minimal reservations, and trailing wreckage in their wake. What a power move.
Overall, I know that, objectively speaking, existing in this world would be maximally dreadful, but the concept of belonging to a group of SAPPHIC GIRLS who draw on their magical powers to FUCK UP the life of the island’s bogeyman is firmly inside my circle of interests. I’m left with the overwhelming desire to stand in the middle of a circle that I’ve drawn using my blood on the top of a mountain during a full moon, summon a demon to slay it, perform at least one exorcism and take down a cult. And make some friends, too, I guess.
Seriously, READ THIS BOOK.