THE HOLLOW GIRL by Hillary Monahan
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Bethan wants nothing more than for Gran to teach her the magic of their Romani people. But knowing magic is dangerous among the gadjos in the neighboring town, and the birthmark on Bethan’s face seems to betray her as a witch to the fearful villagers who hesitate to buy Gran’s herbal cures. Only the young farmer, Martyn, and his father respect her. Bethan finds herself falling for Martyn, and he seems to have already fallen for her. But as if their cultural differences weren’t enough, Silas, the chieftain’s cruel son, wants Bethan and believes he deserves her body. A horrific violence leaves Martyn all but dead and Bethan empty and forever changed. But Gran knows it is time for Bethan to learn dark magic to save Martyn and exact her bloody revenge on those who wronged her.
After days of pondering this book, I still have strong, mixed feelings. The short review is that despite some flaws (a shallow depiction of gypsy culture and awkward and explication-heavy development of the relationship between Bethan and Gran), it is a gripping and deeply, lingeringly disturbing page-turner that fans of violent revenge stories may enjoy. But survivors of sexual violence should be aware that many scenes are graphic and could prompt flashbacks.
If you are a teacher or librarian planning to recommend it to teens, I recommend you read the long review below.
This novel devotes significant attention to the psychological effects of rape on the protagonist. In particular, Bethan wrestles with how the rape had impacted her identity. Who is she now? Who does she want to be? How can she regain control over every aspect of her life and self–not just her physical body.
Intertwined with this complex exploration is Bethan’s contemplation of herself as a perpetrator of violence. Gran insists that Bethan herself commit the bloody tortures to complete the dark magic that will raise Martyn from the dead. As Bethan tortures her torturers, she sometimes feels satisfaction in her revenge in addition to a conflicting guilt and disgust at the acts of violence she commits.
Ultimately, for Bethan, the violence is worth it. The men who attacked her are far from innocent and despite their pleas for mercy and the tears in their mothers’ eyes as they see their sons tortured, sometimes to death, the end of resurrecting Martyn justifies the morally questionable means. On a broader thematic level, once her attackers are gone and Martyn is once again by her side, Bethan feels a weight lift and feels hopeful for her own emotional resurrection in the future. Reclaiming her own identity, she tells her village that she did what she needed to do and now she is done with violence and dark magic forever.
So here’s where I’m conflicted. It is a common enough trope for an act of evil to turn a victim to further acts of evil. But that isn’t what’s going on here. I believe we are supposed to like Bethan throughout and to approve of her decision to save her love (and herself) by torturing others. The author copiously records Bethan’s distaste and moral conflict about the tortures she commits, but Bethan’s rejection of violence came too late for me–only after she had used it to achieve her end. When she is uncomfortable with violence, Gran pushes her into yet–yet there is no condemnation of Gran. To Gran and Bethan, people who beat a man to death or rape a girl deserve to be burned alive in front of their mothers, have their eyes gouged out, etc. And on an allegorical level, perhaps they do, but given the sensitive and modern treatment of the other aspects of Bethan’s psychological recovery, her embracing of violence (and indeed the seeming necessity of that violence for her psychological recovery) seemed jarringly out of place and has lingered with me.
For that reason, I can’t decide whether I like this book or not. I certainly enjoyed reading it, but upon finishing, find myself still unsettled and not necessarily in a good way.