Okiku is a ghost with a mission. Killed when over three hundred years ago when she was a teenage serving girl, she has left her native Japan to travel the world killing child murderers. She finds a murderer who sets his sights on a teenage boy covered with tattoos in a strange language. As a ghost, Okiku suspects what the tattoos are keeping in check, and decides to watch over the boy named Tarquin. This thrusts her into a conflict that will bring her back to her native land, as what the tattoos are keeping in check is a power to rival the most powerful of vengeful ghosts.
This book was one of my snags on Independent bookstore day from the Wild Rumpus. I love a good ghost story, and despite the nagging voice saying I didn’t have any room left on my bookshelves (the voice all of us booklovers need to tell to shut up) I couldn’t resist. Reading this felt like falling in love again. My recent reads have been mostly for class, and while some of the novels I read were good and I enjoyed them, this was the book that kept me glued from start to finish. Yes, I admit I found my heart’s joy reading a novel about a vengeful ghost killing child murderers. It could be worse.
Okiku’s narration is beautiful. The entire novel stays in her perspective, which surprised me with how well it worked. She has very little interaction with the other characters, although as the novel progresses more living people are able to see her or earn her trust to let her see them. She is a ghost who worked through the pain of her murder, and now uses her powers to take out bad people.
Like most Japanese ghosts, Okiku is very skilled with technology. There are plenty of convenient blackouts that she causes. For a book dealing with some very heavy and dark topics, it is surprisingly not gory. This definitely is for older teenagers, but the convenient blackouts also hide some of the goriest scenes. The novel is very well done with not sugarcoating the bad (I mean, this is about ghosts vengeful because they were murdered brutally after all) but not being gratuitously gory. Which is probably another reason I love it. As a horror fan, I definitely go for the creepy and spooky horror over the chainsaw dismemberment.
The book does contain the “psychic child” trope. In another words, the little girl who knows and says what the plot demands the characters must know. From a craft perspective, I get it—there needs to be a way to tell the reader certain information, and for the characters to learn things that Okiku isn’t in a position to tell them. But it is a trope that does leave me rolling my eyes at how convenient it is.
It is also said that Okiku only has power to attack child murderers because she was a child herself when she was murdered. While by modern standards she was a child—she was a teenager—by the standards of the time she lived in she would have been an adult. Okiku was a servant when her lord had her murdered. Saying she has powers only over child murderers feels a little bit of a stretch. I don’t know enough about Japanese ghost lore to know how accurate that is, although there is a lot of lore around vengeful ghosts that can harm the living.
A great aspect of this novel is a lot of Shinto. Ghost possession and exorcism of bad spirits into dolls is a major plot point. Unfortunately, I don’t know enough about Shinto to comment if it was accurate. But everything in the novel is consistent with the little I do know. The beliefs also felt real.
The ending of this book left me chomping at the bit for the sequel, which is also worth it for horror fans to check out. A mix of beauty and darkness, The Girl from the Well is a must for lovers of ghost stories and horror.