Book Review: Ballad For a Mad Girl by Vikki Wakefield (Text Publishing)

It was inevitable that Ballad For a Mad Girl would be classified as young adult reading. After all, Vikki Wakefield’s fourth novel makes a close examination of painful teenage life. But it’s also a visceral ghost story, complete with murder, possession and body horror. Call it a supernatural coming-of-age thriller.

We’re introduced to 17-year-old Grace Foley with the following barbed hook: “I’ve been having hateful thoughts again.” But beyond typical teen angst, Grace has added reason to stew. She’s in denial about how much she misses her mum, who’s been dead for years, and she’s stifled by her family’s new suburban home (“It stinks of happy families”) after a happily unchecked childhood spent on a farm. She’s also been watching her longtime friends suddenly pair off into neat couples and, worse, she’s been grounded by her dad for the umpteenth time.

Those mounting dramas soon seem quaint, thanks to a shock encounter with what Grace assumes to be the spirit of Hannah Holt, who vanished 23 years earlier at the same age that Grace is now. That first encounter comes at night, after she’s snuck out to compete in a high-stakes public race that pits her fellow “Homebrand” public school students against the overachievers at Sacred Heart next door. Living up to her fear-junkie reputation, Grace speeds along a treacherous bore-water pipe in a local quarry when it strikes her: suddenly she’s reliving somebody else’s trauma at the exact same spot from decades ago.

From there it’s a quick unravelling, as a newly spooked Grace loses her title as town daredevil and edges into what she fears might be the same insanity that plagued her mother. (Her mother apparently saw ghosts herself, “everywhere.”) It doesn’t help that Grace hasn’t dealt with that loss, even as her father and her 20-year-old brother find some degree of solace in downing beers while working on cars together. She avoids the intersection where her mum was struck down by an errant truck, and steers clear of the cemetery in the same guarded way: “I don’t visit. Dead is dust; only the living care if you leave flowers.”

That stubborn bluntness is one of Grace’s defining features. Even at her most harried, she reflects on her troubles with a clipped, almost hard-boiled air of resilience: “I try to turn my head. I can’t. I’m choking, trying to suck air through a pinhole, wanting to thrash and scream, but my body is paralysed.”

Even before things escalate into full-blown horror territory, Wakefield suffuses the small Australian town of Swanston with a sense of festering unfinished business. Grace and her friends call it Swamptown, a foreshadowing nickname that’s introduced early on — much like the corrupt town of Personville is dubbed “Poisonville” in the opening line of Dashiell Hammett’s classic novel Red Harvest. Later she describes the day’s weather with a similar sense of earthy pungency: “It’s a wet-dog day in Swanston. I can’t explain why the town smells like that some days; the slightest drop of rain after a dust storm and everything stinks like sodden sheepdog — your hair, your clothes, your skin.”

Like the dogged detective of Red Harvest, who can’t leave well enough alone, Grace pursues the cold case of Hannah Holt’s disappearance even as her behaviour alienates friends and family. She lies and breaks the law without hesitation, all while the very rules of reality begin to warp and betray her. She’s led back, of course, to her mother’s death, questioning whether it was indeed an innocent hit-and-run. Did her unstable mum throw herself into harm’s way as a means of escape, or was she targeted by the driver? And was Hannah actually murdered by the local boy who later committed suicide out of apparent guilt? Questions quickly begin to outnumber answers.

Some of the eerie turns that follow could have sprung from Stephen King, who’s back in the pop-culture spotlight following a series of high-profile film and TV adaptations. Wakefield taps the spirit of King’s work better than most, getting under our skin by tugging at the dark uncertainties waiting just behind closed doors. It’s the simplest doubts that can animate our worst fears, as Grace discovers while being attacked from within and without. Hijacked by impossible forces, she questions her sanity and rails against herself for losing control. Along the way, Wakefield depicts self-blame at its most toxic.

With methodical regularity, Ballad For a Mad Girl lays out a procession of disturbing scenes and images that linger in the reader’s mind. There’s the unnatural smile planted on the face of the family dog, one of Grace’s first confidants to shun her. There’s the scene where she applies her make-up as if with a stranger’s hand, ending up with an alarmingly distorted face. And another where she finds herself drawing an accomplished portrait in a style not at all her own, surprising herself and her art class alike. Meanwhile, her physical decline is so marked that she is eventually mistaken for a volatile drug addict.

Wakefield brings an alarming gothic edge to the usual psychological turmoil of adolescence, amplifying Grace’s increasing self-loathing until she views herself as downright monstrous in comparison to a formerly gawky friend called Gummer: “Gummer is growing up, growing into his skin, and I feel as if I’m crawling out of mine, like some creature from the bottom of the swamp.”

For all its supernatural elements, Ballad For a Mad Girl is very much grounded in real life, taking hard looks at universal growing pains. Grace suffers from panic attacks and finds herself publicly shamed on and off social media. At the same time, Wakefield presents the mundane with a halo of the grotesque: The numbers in Grace’s maths homework are “drunken ants, marching up the page.” Likewise, Grace gives voice to her desperation using the bleak, bracing language of horror movies: “Fear is not an unwanted pet you reluctantly feed; it doesn’t come with reins and a bit. Fear feeds on YOU.”

Never condescending, this intense teen drama comes from the Sonya Hartnett school of YA, reading like robust literary fiction that’s simply pitched to a wider audience. Balancing relatable everyday trials with rug-pulling, genre-blurring twists, Wakefield has written a cathartic sermon for survivors of all ages.