Eerily beautiful and incredibly disturbing, Imaginary Girls is a novel unlike any other I’ve ever read. As the story begins, Chloe is coaxed into swimming across a reservoir at night by her magnetic and beautiful older sister, Ruby. A dangerous and illegal activity, made all the more frightening because Chloe would be swimming over the lost town of Olive, which was flooded to make room for the reservoir. The idea of swimming over a ghost towns in the dark of night, with the possibility of “cold, webbed hands” reaching out for your ankles, is incredibly evocative and scary, and it created a distinct feeling of unease that never left me.
If that wasn’t enough, Chloe finds herself face to face with a dead body at the end of her swim. In terrible shock, she leaves town for awhile to live with her father. Upon her return, however, she finds that while everything still seems to go Ruby’s way, absolutely nothing is exactly what it seems–and something terrible lurks beneath the surface of the charmed world that her sister has created.
This is a fascinating story about a compelling and uncomfortable relationship between a mesmerizing older sister and her profound influence on her younger sibling. Chloe refers to herself as an “echo” of Ruby, and the imbalance in their interactions becomes more and more troubling. What rings very true, especially for anyone who might have an older sister herself, is that Ruby mostly does not control those around her with threats or extremely negative behavior, but confidently captivates them with the beguiling persuasiveness of her personality. And it’s the poison you love that usually does the most damage.
Throughout the book, I wasn’t entirely sure what was going on–is it supernatural? is it not?–and I think its dreamy, distant mood was perfect for a story that creates a lot of puzzling scenarios but doesn’t necessarily provide clear cut answers. I think some readers may have an issue with some of the unresolved questions, but for me, its Twilight Zone quality was part of its appeal.
This is an extremely compelling and layered book, with gorgeous, haunting imagery and quietly frightening scenarios. It takes a gifted writer to make something as innocent as a bunch of balloons into a reason to make you worried and afraid. The shivers I felt upon reading that scene still haven’t quite left me, and the disquieting mood of this strangely beautiful book certainly never will.
The Town of Olive:
There’s a fascinating story behind the author’s inspiration for this novel. The lost town of Olive was inspired by and loosely based on the communities in the Hudson Valley that were torn down to build the Ashokan Reservoir in 1917. The author also answers some other frequently asked questions on her website.
Rated 5 out of 5 stars
30-Second Synopsis: A ghost story, a love story between siblings, and a thread of the supernatural are all woven together in a gorgeously written book. Highly recommended.