Sawkill Rock is an island and a world unto itself, but it’s also a place where girls keep disappearing. Marion, Valerie, and Zoey meet on the Rock, each containing her own secrets and desires. But an ancient evil is stalking the girls and they must face the price that stopping it will demand.
I haven’t read all of Claire Legrand’s books by any means, but I find her an interesting author and this title was getting some praise from people I trust, so I decided to give it a try.
Sawkill Girls is an interesting beast of a book. (I mean that fairly literally, as it’s almost 500 pages long.) It clearly has a lot to Say, about the violence and horrors that teenage girls face, the expectations and the boxes they are made to fit themselves into. At the same time, I felt that the book faltered a bit under the weight of that message. Like Legrand’s other 2018 release, Furyborn, it seems like this is trying to be a fiercely feminist book, and there are ways it hits that goal and ways that, at least for me, it falls somewhat short.
Part of it is the question I find myself asking a lot recently: who is this book for? Is it an empowering story for teenage girls? Or is it for adult women who want to read an empowering story about teenage girls? Who would find it resonant and who would find themselves left out? I don’t have clear answers to these questions, partly because neither group is a monolith, but I kept thinking about the ways that many teens are constantly aware of the world they face. Would this story give them strength, or would it point out what they already know?
Sawkill Girls is about three girls: Marion, Zoey, and Val. They are summed up as “the new girl,” “the pariah,” and “the queen bee.” Over the course of the book, we learn their many secrets and these roles become more complicated and fraught. But I struggled with this a bit because I didn’t see them ever become fully fleshed out people. The characterization just felt a bit thin, and although the way the girls inhabit those initial roles is called into question, I still felt that they were limited by them.
I do appreciate that although the Collector is the main antagonist, the Hand of Light–a group of men who uses up girls to fight monsters–also becomes a clear villain. It reminded us that sometimes the greatest danger is from ordinary people who seemingly have good intentions. But I wished that on the converse, we saw the strength of ordinary girls, not simply extraordinary ones.
I also appreciated that we see ways that women participate in harming other women and in some ways this is the most subtle part of the story. I was less entirely convinced by the turnaround we see with one of the characters, and the way the other characters accept her change of heart, but it’s still interesting to see this strand teased out across different characters and generations.
This is certainly a powerful story–it is genuinely creepy and terrifying and I am still thinking about it and arguing with it several days after finishing it. But I can’t help feeling that something about the literal en-monstering of dark violence against girls and the way the characters don’t ever quite shed the types they’ve been cast as doesn’t quite sit well with me.
This may be a result of the expectations the aim of the book sets up, and I may be unfair here. After all, there’s not only one right way to write a feminist story and what doesn’t resonate with me might easily be really important to another reader. And yet, I can’t help thinking that the empowerment shown here is just a little too easy and surface-level. So, I don’t know. Ultimately, I’m very torn on this one!
Other reviews of Sawkill Girls:
My previous reviews of Claire Legrand:
Previously, on By Singing Light: