The girls of Alice Marshall School are all there for a reason. Some, like the I-bankers, can be easily slotted into a category: they’ve all been sent into the wilderness of central Idaho by their well-to-do, exasperated—and very hands-off—parents to deal with their incessant partying and various addictions. They have no intention of working through their issues, and are likely to jump right back into their old patterns when they leave.
Read the last Bookshelves of Doom on Jon Skovron's 'Misfit.'
Others, like Boone, Gia, Jules and our narrator, Lida, are harder to peg.
Lida has no desire to talk about her Thing—her reason for being at Alice Marshall. She’s not interested in sharing with the teachers, counselors or the other students. Despite her disinclination to talk, she finds herself drawn toward two very different girls: Boone, who’s prickly, violent and guarded, but who sees something in Lida that she recognizes and trusts; and Gia, who’s glamorous, well-traveled and mysterious, and who, for some reason, is curious about the decidedly unsophisticated Lida.
Problem is, Boone and Gia hate each other. And it isn’t long before Lida’s caught in the middle of a situation that could very well end with someone dead.
Wow, Erin Saldin. The Girls of No Return is quite the debut.
Lida’s narration is a force: intense and suspenseful, but despite the physicality of the girls’ lives at Alice Marshall, not because she’s living an action movie. The tension comes from her dread about reaching the end of the story and her desire to keep her Thing to herself: she’s making herself write this all out, and you can feel that.
Through Lida, Saldin never tips her hand—never overtells, never holds back information to spin a mystery out longer, never resorts to the horribly overused “someone is interrupted just before spilling necessary information” dialogue trick. Lida isn’t ever actively trying to hide information from us, she just doesn’t want to talk about it. At all. Some readers might even find her too opaque, too reticent, but for me? Her voice was a treat.
And then there’s the setting: it never plays the antagonistic Elements Against the Girl role, but the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness Area is very definitely one of the main characters. In less capable hands, Lida’s descriptions of her surroundings and of learning—and putting to use—survival skills could have come off as travelogue-ish and/or didactic. But they never do. Instead, like everything else about this book, they feel meditative and right.
It’s very possible—likely, even—that readers will know what Lida’s Thing is before she reveals it, and will see where the story’s headed. I did, at any rate. But that won’t matter. After all, neither of those things is a plot twist. They’re both just intensely painful to talk about, and Lida needs to get to get there in her own time.
The Girls of No Return is absolutely, completely gripping—once I’d started reading, I didn’t put it down, not even while I was giving blood—and despite its subject matter, it’s never exploitative. It never compromises its emotional core, and never feels like anything but The Truth. It left me feeling wrought-out and wrecked, but in a good, subtly supercathartic way.
Highly recommended, and I’ll be watching for whatever comes next from Erin Saldin.
Let's be honest. If she isn't writing Bookshelves of Doom or doing her librarian thing, Leila Roy is most likely being tragically unproductive due to the shiny lure of Pinterest.