Imaginary Girls, a Twilight Zone-esque “what if?”

By Elizabeth C. Bunce readers, you mostly know me as the TV critic here at the ol’ genre stronghold, but you might have noticed that in my spare time, I’m also an author of novels for young adults.  I don’t normally talk about my reading here on, but I’ve just finished a critically acclaimed new YA novel–and y’all are really the only folks I can talk to sensibly about it.  But I can’t do it without spoilers, so let’s just come clean straight away.  I honestly don’t know what this is going to do to your experience of reading the book, so proceed at your own risk.

Nova Ren Suma’s gripping new YA novel Imaginary Girls doesn’t start off as science fiction or paranormal, but it slowly, ever so slowly (or, at least, as slowly as a book you devour pretty much in one sitting can do) pulls you over the edge, getting creepier and creepier, until *BAM!* Something You Can’t Explain hits you smack in the face.

And things just get weirder from there.

Sound like your kind of book?  Yeah.  So stop reading RIGHT NOW if you don’t want the spoilers.  You’ve been warned.

Imaginary Girls is a story about sisters, and a bond stronger than reason, stronger than logic, stronger than the laws of physics, and, apparently, stronger than death.  Ruby and her younger sister Chloe are all each other has, growing up together in a small upstate New York town on the banks of a giant reservoir.  There are ghosts in that reservoir, ghosts of the whole towns flooded when the dams were built (an idea also explored brilliantly by suspense master Stuart Woods in his 1987 novel Under the Lake). And ghosts of the summer Chloe was fourteen, when a night on the lake with Ruby’s friends ends in tragedy, the death of Chloe’s classmate London.  Chloe is sent to live with her father in Pennsylvania, but Ruby will do anything to get her sister back, make things just like they were before. Literally anything.

What if the little boy (Billy Mumy) from the classic Twilight Zone episode “It’s A Good Life” grew up, still with the whole town wrapped around his twisted little finger?  What if his powers over reality and life and death grew along with him?  What if there was someone–anyone–in his life he really, truly loved? Like… maybe a little sister?

These are the questions Nova Ren Suma explores (even if she wasn’t aware she was doing it) in Imaginary Girls.  She takes a character like little Anthony Fremont, and spins out the probable trajectory of such a being’s adolescence and young adulthood.  Just like in the Twilight Zone episode (and the undeniably sci-fi 1953 original story by Jerome Bixby, in which “Anthony” is not an adorable Billy Mumy, and the cornfield he wishes his enemies into is a much darker, scarier place), there is horror here, and it seeps in gradually, as the reader–and, ultimately, first person narrator Chloe–begins to understand what Ruby is, what she can do.  What she’s been doing, all her life.  What she did, the summer London died.  And every moment since.

But there’s also pathos, in Chloe’s impassioned and increasingly desperate defense of her beloved sister.  And I think this is where Imaginary Girls becomes so interesting.  Suma doesn’t just give us the premise and the horror of the omnipotent manipulator–she gives us the rest of the story, the pain and the consequences, and the wreckage left behind, when everyone is still trying to figure out what’s happened to them.

This isn’t a comfortable book, by any means, but it’s an un-put-down-able page-turner.  And I’m not alone; Imaginary Girls has scooped up starred reviews and awards buzz all fall.  Watch for it to hit shortlists and Year’s Best roundups soon.

Leave a Reply