Jane Healey‘s follow-up to the excellent The Animals at Lockwood Manor is a much more stoic affair, moving away from the historical genre towards more emotionally complex literary fiction. This is almost a concept novel, centring on Healey’s fascination with floral-adorned Ophelias depicted in art and photography.
The story unfolds along two strands: one follows Ruth – a mother reflecting on teenage memories of 1973 when she spent the summer taking photographs with her friends in the river near her rural English home; the other follows Ruth’s seventeen year-old daughter, Maeve, in 1997 who is similarly mesmerised with Ophelia-style photography and, more shockingly, her parents’ middle-aged photographer friend, Stuart. Ruth, narrating in first person, shares many traits with Maeve. Both are introverted, alienated, creative, survivors of childhood trauma, and exploring sexual awakenings. However, despite their similarities, a rift is growing between them – more than any typical teenage-parent friction. Ruth is trying to salvage her deteriorating marriage and can’t quite move past a tragic event from her youth, while Maeve is recovering from a serious childhood illness and years spent in hospitals.
The Ophelia Girls focuses more on the creation of atmosphere and exploration of an inner female world rather than on plot (although secrets, twists, and reveals do play a crucial part in the book’s final act). Many of Ruth’s flashback chapters are fairly similar as she remembers the photography sessions she created with her group of teenage friends. The pace is tempered and steady. Maeve’s third-person sections have a little more forward momentum to them, as her unnerving relationship with Stuart develops from teenage crush to morally questionable sexual affair. It is this that pulls the story along, creating visceral tension and affecting dramatic irony.
Throughout it all, Healey’s prose is beautiful and taut. Her descriptions of rural England are vivid and captivating, creating a languid, stifling mood that perfectly represents the central characters’ fractious states. She also captures Ruth and Maeve clearly, drawing them as multi-faceted, conflicted characters who both feel oppressed yet, despairingly, can’t connect with one another.
The novel’s climax is unusual and possibly contentious. The final chapters drift off in an unexpected direction that feel slightly disconnected from the rest of the novel’s tone. One or two loose ends don’t quite feel tied up and the fate of Ruth and Maeve seem a little unresolved. Nevertheless, the overall impact of The Ophelia Girls is strong, with a hypnotic ambience, evocative sense of place, and two intriguing protagonists.