Alarm Girl by Hannah Vincent (Myriad Editions – August 2014)
Alarm Girl is the story of eleven-year-old Indigo who, together with her older brother Robin, flies to South Africa to visit her father. Since the death of their mother Indigo and Robin have been living in England with their maternal grandparents while their father establishes his tourism business in Cape Town. When they arrive everything seems strange and new, ‘Being in Africa is like being on a different planet, not just a different country,’ Indigo says. Her father is different as well; he has a warthog as a pet, a new girlfriend called ‘Beautiful’ and a new look:
He had no shoes on, and instead of his trousers he was wearing a piece of material wrapped around like a skirt. A leather string around his neck had a pointy tooth hanging off. He said it was a Great White’s. I didn’t believe him but I didn’t say anything.
Indigo begins to feel that she has actually lost both of her parents: ‘If you love us so much how come you live in a different country?’ she asks her father. She feels out of place in South Africa but also in her family.
The relationships in Alarm Girl simmer with unspoken conversations but the most glaring omission is the question of how and why Indigo’s mother died. All Indigo has been told is that she was ill, though she cannot remember her ever being sick. In the absence of information Indigo cultivates dark suspicions and creates her own version of what might have happened.
Indigo's story in the present is interspersed with her mother Karen's story stretching back through Indigo's childhood, to before she was born when Karen was travelling the world with Indigo's father, then further back into Karen's teenage years, and then finally it returns to the events leading up to her death. Indigo’s voice is a little disjointed and she sometimes sounds younger than her eleven years but Karen’s narrative is very authentic and moving. I particularly enjoyed this moment of existential crisis in the supermarket:
The paleness of the yellow icing and the indeterminate nature of the pink were too insubstantial to tolerate. The biscuits could only disappoint, and, as she stood in the brightly lit supermarket aisle, this seemed true of everything. […] She knew it was foolish to be so affected by a food packaging design but she felt powerless in the face of what it implied about the sheer hopelessness of human enterprise.
(Having formerly worked in packaging design I had sympathy with this sentiment.)
I didn't love the book at first—I found the hopping between narrators and timeframes a bit confusing and, as a South African, I must confess to nitpicking about some of the details in the South African setting. This novel did subvert my expectations; it is not a light-hearted, coming-of-age story—it is about family tragedy and mental illness. In tone and content I could compare it to Nathan Filer’s The Shock of the Fall. By the time the narratives had converged at the end Hannah Vincent had won me over.
Alarm Girl is a subtle and yet powerful novel. The undercurrents of tension and danger are well evoked and sustained throughout the book. In Indigo’s narrative the author captures the awkwardness of pre-adolescence as well as Indigo’s dawning comprehension of adult things, and in Karen’s narrative she summons a darkness that lurks and threatens to overwhelm. Alarm Girl is in fact, despite the sombre tone, a coming-of-age novel, and after the revelation of how her mother died, Indigo is able to find her place and lay the past to rest.
In May this year Simon Stevens started a conversation about book cover clichés with the following tweet: ‘Like so many (wildly varying) writers on Africa, Adichie gets the acacia tree sunset treatment...’ In contrast to this Myriad Editions deserve kudos for producing this beautiful sun-bleached photographic cover design with a custom watercolour-brushstroke typeface. The ubiquitous acacia tree sunset does in fact make an appearance on the back cover but it is mitigated by the addition of Tony the Warthog.