‘The Torn Skirt’ and ‘The Seas’

Victoria O’Brien
Desert Island Dispatches

In a past life, I worked in entertainment. My water cooler conversations were often about what movie I’d last seen in theatres or what TV show I was watching, and I’d always reply, a bit sheepishly, that I didn’t own a television (my mother eventually got me one as a housewarming present during the pandemic), though I did love going to the movies. I know my answer was (is) decidedly unusual, especially in that world. I’d tell people I prefer reading, which is true, but I do like old movies and weird movies, and frequently commit to a television series years after it has its day in the sun. Recently though, I have been paying attention to “Under the Bridge,” an adaptation of Rebecca Godfrey’s book about the murder of Reena Virk, a 14-year-old girl in British Columbia in the 1990s, the teenagers who’d done it and the moral panic it sparked.
It’s really well-done — extraordinarily sensitive, never gratuitous, technically superb — and I’ve been following it weekly since it debuted last month, which is rare for me. This isn’t about that story, but rather about Godfrey’s first book, a novel, “The Torn Skirt,” which I checked out of the library and read one night late last week. It’s a strange book and I’ve been turning it over in my head the last couple of days because it reminds me of another novel I read awhile ago, Samantha Hunt’s “The Seas.” Both tell the story of teenage girls living in remote places — Godfrey’s in Victoria, British Columbia; Hunt’s in an unnamed fishing village in northern Maine — and both follow their protagonists through the agonies of coming-of-age. Neither of them are easy reads. I actually threw “The Seas” across my apartment when I finished it, but thought about it so much that I loaned it to my best friend, who had nearly the same reaction and texted me, “I hate this book, but can’t stop thinking about it. I also think I love it.” They are very dark and complicated stories, and their heroines are infuriating and unlikeable, caught up in their bottomless griefs, in the horror of growing up and older, in becoming women.
In many ways, I’m glad I read “The Seas” before “The Torn Skirt” because I understood exactly where it was headed and that I wasn’t going to get a joyful resolution. “Anne of Green Gables” it is not, but it was beautiful in no small part because, like “The Seas,” there were elements that reminded me of myself, of modern girlhood, of being a ‘real’ girl. They yearn. They’re greedy and demanding and arrogant. They’re also painfully naïve and desperate to be seen and loved, keen to be somebody or become something else.
I was thinking recently about my own girlhood and what it would be like to have a time machine to go back and be 15 again. What would I have done differently? A lot, if I’m honest. But I’d have left a lot of it alone, too. What’s the old chestnut? “Youth is wasted on the young.” Tell me again, why did I want to grow up so fast? Why did any of us?
There have even been times, as an adult, that I’ve seen girls out in the world and watched as they try to be older before they’re ready, and I’ve sometimes wondered what it is about being a girl, in particular, that makes us want to grow up so much faster. I’ve been there, so I have a hunch. I don’t think it’s inborn. I also don’t think it’s noble. I honestly think it’s quite sad, particularly since we spend so much of our youth wishing to be grown up only to become women and live in terror of turning 30 and falling off the proverbial cliff like the dodo before us. Something I loved in both of these books, something that’s stuck with me, was that the girls were angry with the world and feeling complex, messy emotions about how they’d been brought up and where they were headed.
In hindsight, girlhood was a gift I did not treasure well. I have a drawer manuscript somewhere and in it, I wrote that the girl should “disabuse [herself] of the notion” that she needed to grow up any faster than she already was. The truth is, people I loved told me exactly that when I was young, but I knew so much better than them then. How ironic.