The Ice Cream Girls (by Dorothy Koomson)

I’ve enjoyed the books I’ve read so far by Dorothy Koomson, so was pleased when I discovered this one on special offer (three books for £5) when we were last in the UK.

It’s taken me several months to get around to reading ‘The Ice Cream Girls’, and I just finished it last night. Wow. What a powerful book!

The story opens as Serena’s husband gets down on one knee and proposes to her. This, it seems, is something she has dreamed about for years. And no, they’re neither divorced nor separated. Their original marriage was something of a shotgun affair, rapidly followed by their first child, and now, at last, her wonderful doctor husband Evan would like to do the things properly.

We then learn that Serena has a few odd hangups. She insists on hiding the kitchen knives every night... and she has some strange memories of people cold-shouldering her.

Just when I was wondering how this all added up to the happy scenario of chapter one, the scene shifts to Poppy, who has just been released from prison where she has spent the last twenty years.

Snapshot newspaper-style cuttings tell us about the ‘ice cream girls’ Serena and Poppy who, in their mid-teens, had apparently murdered one of their school teachers. Poppy insists she is innocent... which means that Serena must in fact have been the guilty one. And Poppy is very resentful that Serena has what seems like a perfect wife, with a lovable husband and two delightful children...

The story continues switching between these two women who never much liked each other, but had a shared and horrific connection twenty years previously. There are flashbacks too, where they first meet Marcus, the history teacher who singles them out for extra tuition... which, as they gradually discover, means a lot more than just O-level history. But Marcus is not just a seducer of teenage girls, which would be bad enough (particularly as both are just 15 when they meet him)... as the story unfolds, I began to feel that either of the two girls would have been totally justified if they had, in fact, killed him.

I was afraid at one point that this novel was going to be sordid, but it never quite crossed that line. Sordidity and cruelty and worse were certainly hinted at, but the details were sparse, the descriptions left up to the imagination of the reader. The story moves slowly at first but becomes quite gripping - will Poppy and Serena meet at last as adults? Will Poppy ever be able to trust anyone? Why has Serena never told her husband about her past, and will he find out...? And who did kill Marcus - or was it a joint effort?

As with Koomson’s other novels the writing is excellent, the characterisation three-dimensional and believable, the bedroom scenes minimal and non-explicit, and the bad language not too frequent. I have to admit I did turn to the end at one point, wondering if Serena and Evan would still be together.. it meant that I saw the final denouement of the novel, the answer to some of the questions. It didn’t matter, somehow. I don’t know if I would have guessed, but I like to think I might.

There’s an afterword which explains that the author wrote this in the hope of encouraging girls caught in a similar situation to speak up, to say anything that might help them out of an abusive or otherwise toxic relationship. I don’t know if girls in such a situation would read a book like this - but I hope they might. I don’t want to think that such things are common; I certainly hope not. Marcus really is an evil person without a single redeeming feature, and it’s hard to imagine how anyone could be attracted to his lies.

Definitely recommended.

Review copyright Sue's Book Reviews, 4th March 2013

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