Girl in a boarding school: YA meets grip-lit

YA author Cat Clarke’s sixth novel, Girlhood, ticks many ‘grip-lit’ boxes. She talks to Claire Hennessy

“I’m interested in shades of grey,” says Cat Clarke. “So-called ‘good’ people who do terrible things, and vice versa”

“I’m interested in shades of grey,” says Cat Clarke. “So-called ‘good’ people who do terrible things, and vice versa”

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It’s always pleasing to encounter a psychological suspense novel with “girl” in the title that actually refers to girls rather than grown women. Scotland-based YA author Cat Clarke’s sixth novel, Girlhood, ticks many of the boxes we expect to encounter in the “grip-lit” genre: a female protagonist, a dark past, and someone close to the narrator that we’re not sure they should trust (and can we even trust the narrator in the first place?). Aimed at teenagers, however, the novel takes place in a boarding school, drawing on a long history of school stories in young people’s fiction.

Boarding schools work wonderfully for thrillers as they’re intense and enclosed environments where the students have minimal power, and authors writing for a general audience have drawn on this to great effect (Tana French’s The Secret Place, Ruth Ware’s The Lying Game). In children’s and YA fiction, though, there is a history of romanticising them. Clarke’s protagonist, Harper, is a huge fan of fictional boarding schools before she arrives at a real one, and Clarke acknowledges this comes from her own experiences.

“I loved boarding school stories when I was younger,” she says. “My fictional favourites back then were Malory Towers and St. Clare’s [both creations of Enid Blyton]; Girlhood is my tribute to those stories. My favourite right now would have to be Hogwarts though. Who wouldn’t want to receive that acceptance letter?!”

Yet Harper, whose family are only recently wealthy, is also very conscious of the class issues and racial tensions that exist amongst the well-to-do. “When I found Harper’s voice and discovered more about her, I realised that it would be strange for her not to obsess about the privileged backgrounds of her fellow students,” Clarke says, though she notes that sexuality – another topic handled deftly in the novel – is less of a problem. “It’s not something Harper spends a lot of time thinking about. She’s comfortable with who she is, and so are the people around her.”

In some respects Girlhood is much closer to “typical” YA than Clarke’s other books, with an ending not quite as grim as she has offered up previously. “The ending is one of my favourite things about the story. It wasn’t so much that I felt like Harper had been through enough – I’m certainly not averse to piling misery upon misery on my characters! But the ending always has to fit the story and the characters, and for me, Girlhood is about hope as much as anything.”

At the same time, though, it echoes Clarke’s previous novels by portraying flawed female characters who often do terrible things – both to themselves and to others. The capacity for cruelty that these young women demonstrate is more akin to the darkly destructive tendencies of the (anti)-heroines in fiction intended for adults. It is also a brave move in a field where female characters (and sometimes their creators) are often criticised quite ruthlessly.

“I’m interested in shades of grey,” Clarke declares. “So-called ‘good’ people who do terrible things, and vice versa. The capacity for cruelty is something that fascinates me, so it’s definitely something that crops up in my writing. I do see a lot of criticism of female characters that would never in a million years be applied to male characters, but I try to tune it out. All I can do is create characters that interest me, and that I believe in. Hopefully that translates to readers believing in them too.”

As a YA writer often referred to as part of the new wave of “UKYA”, Clarke is conscious that the home of young adult fiction – the United States – is still leading the way. “In practical terms, the North American YA market is much (much) bigger than the UK market, which means there’s greater variety in terms of what gets published. Specifically, I think the UK is a few years behind in terms of diversity. For example, I feel I mostly look towards North American books for LGBTQIA YA. There are some brilliant books being published in the UK, but there’s not quite the breadth and depth that you find in the North American market. Hopefully that will change soon! We’re making progress, but I’d like things to speed up a little.”

Among the “exceptional YA” of the past year or so, she cites Patrice Lawrence’s Orangeboy (winner of the YA Book Prize and Waterstones Children’s Book Prize) and Deirdre Sullivan’s Needlework (a CBI Honour Award title and winner of a White Raven Award). “I also love everything that Courtney Summers writes, and you can’t go wrong with Patrick Ness, Sarah Crossan and Nina LaCour.”

Clarke is currently working on a new YA novel, though she is reluctant to say much about it. “It starts with a wedding and a car crash … and that’s about all I can say for now. I’m a little superstitious that way!” She finds that it doesn’t necessarily “get any easier” from book to book: “the challenge just changes with each book. Each story is a completely different beast, and I never quite know if I can complete the one I’m working on. I suppose there’s a measure of reassurance that I’ve managed to finished manuscripts that felt impossible at the time, but there’s always the fear that this will be the one that gets the better of me.”
Cat Clarke’s Girlhood is published by Quercus Books. Her backlist – Entangled, Torn, Undone, A Kiss In The Dark, and The Lost & The Found – has been reissued by Quercus with matching covers, and she has also published a novella, Fallen, with Barrington Stoke.

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