I know by now that you can't judge a book by its cover, but when you've never heard of the author or the book that you have been sent for review, the front cover and the title are always what mould your initial expectations. In this case, due to the title and the picture on the cover of two girls in flimsy summer dresses vaguely touching arms, I was expecting light-hearted tales of fun and frolics in the summer sun, carefree high jinks, friendship and youthful innocence. I presumed it would be an enjoyable but overly fluffy and frivolous read, especially as the write-up on the back of the book mentions it being a perfect gift for mothers' day. But I was pleasantly surprised. Although I like chicklit, especially as a welcome relief from some of the darker crime novels I've been reading lately, I often find the genre overly superficial and prefer something that I can really get my teeth into. While this book will certainly appeal to women, it goes so much further than the usual tales of romance and girlie dilemmas of the shopping and/or career kind.
Dorothy Koomson certainly doesn't pull any punches, evoking with grim realism the harrowing themes of sexual, physical and mental abuse, as well as domestic violence. I've read a huge number of crime novels, describing evil mass murderers and psycopathic serial killers, but none of them have had me squirming in my seat and condemning their actions as much as the downright nasty, twisted character in this novel. His calculating, manipulative nature and the sadistic pleasure he gets from playing his two teenage victims off against each other are sickening. Even if the events that unfold for the girls are sad, I would not call his death "a tragic event" as the blurb on the back of the book does.
In the book, the Ice Cream Girls was the name given by the press to teenagers Poppy and Serena, who fell prey to their sadistic teacher Marcus, who set about breaking their hearts, spirits and - on several occasions - bones. Although they were undeniably his victims, they are perceived by the press and the public at large as heartless murderesses when he is found stabbed to death, especially when compromising photos come to light, showing them kissing each other or posing in revealing swimsuits eating ice cream. It doesn't matter that they were forced into posing for these snapshops by their abuser. Their reputations are ruined forever. Poppy is imprisoned for a life sentence while Serena tries to get on with life as a wife and mum. When Poppy is released from prison and tracks down Serena, their lives go into meltdown and the women can no longer hide from the skeletons in their closets.
The book is narrated alternately by Serena and Poppy, as adults but with numerous flashbacks to the 80's, so we really empathise with both girls and understand their viewpoints. Both girls blame each other for the death and struggle to deal with the mixed emotions they still have for the man they loved and hated in equal measures and for each other.
Both girls are strong characters, dealing with everything life can throw at them and struggling to keep their heads (and those of their loved ones) above water. It examines the sometimes complicated bonds between parents and children, sisters, husbands and wives and fellow victims and, despite the harrowing subject matter, is a very uplifting and positive book. I did actually guess the end but still enjoyed the little twist at the end - it was great to finish with a little literary flourish !
I may not agree with everything that is written on the back of the book but I do agree wholeheartedly with the bit that says : "Thought-provoking, gripping and heart-warming - commercial fiction gold".
star rating : 5/5
RRP : £12.99
Hardcover: 464 pages
Publisher: Sphere; First Edition edition (18 Feb 2010)