Nova Ren Suma’s Imaginary Girls is one of the hardest books to review / rate that the cat has read in a long time. It’s not the type of book you can immediately “like”. It’s not a very “likeable” book for many reasons (primarily since the protagonists aren’t very “likeable”), but rather the type of book that will confuse you, make you frown from start to finish, because for the longest of time, you won’t have the foggiest about what exactly is going on!
Chloe grows up with her older sister Ruby in a small town. Because their mother is not fit to take care of her kids, it’s always been Ruby who took care and protected her 5-year-younger sister Chloe. Ruby is both a mystery and an open book to everyone in town: Ruby is Ruby and perfect, and always able to charm anyone into doing what she wants them to do. To Chloe Ruby is her idol. She knows Ruby loves her more than anyone else and there’s no one who knows Ruby better than her, not even her boyfriends. One summer, in the middle of a party, Ruby urges Chloe to swim across the reservoir. In the middle of the reservoir, Chloe finds the dead body of a girl (London) in a rowboat. The experience creeps Chloe out so much that she goes to live with her dad and her stepmom. She doesn’t forget about Ruby, though, and when Ruby shows up about 2 years later she’s more than happy to return to her old town. Despite Ruby’s insistence that everything is as it used to be…it’s not..or rather, it is, which is what really creeps Ruby out! London – the dead girl in the rowboat who was the reason for Chloe’s leaving – is still alive! Together with Chloe we try to find out what the hell happened and how a girl whose obituary Chloe saw – whose flippin’ dead body Chloe even touched! – could still be there!
First off, it is very hard to feel connected to either of the two female protagonists. The cat didn’t bond at all with Ruby who’s one of the most hateful, manipulative characters ever. Chloe keeps on telling us how fantastic Ruby is and how everyone is besotted with her charms, but the things Rube does and says just prove that Ruby like to control other people, and just wants to have things her way with complete disregard to everyone, including her own sister. Also, Chloe herself is completely blind to her sister’s overbearing whims and never felt like a real protagonist/character able of much real growth. She never really questions her sister and what exactly her sister does to her and the people around her. And even after having spent 2 years apart from her sister, it doesn’t look like she wants to become her own person…not really. She’d much rather stay in her sister’s manipulative shadow.
The most redeeming quality of the book is undoubtedly Nova Ren Suma’s writing, which both obfuscates much of the plot and mesmerizes the reader and urged the cat to read on. Suma’s style sets up one of the eeriest magical realist stories the cat has read in a long while: it is haunting and during these dark days of October, Imaginary Girls might very well be the best Halloween story ever. It hides and mystifies rather than lifts the veil. The writing itself definitely doesn’t clarify much about what’s going on and undeniably serves as a kind of mist for the plot. Even at the end you’re not really supposed to ask the question: “what happened?” You’re supposed to marvel at the beautiful writing and not mind that a lot of what makes a story a story is really missing…
Imaginary Girls is as much about what isn’t said as it is what about is said. Imaginary Girls is supposed to be a magical puzzle, but obviously some readers require just a few more pieces to put everything together… The cat didn’t “like” the book, but nevertheless kept on reading, despite the feelings of unease and the way Nova Ren Suma did her utmost to make the reader feel as uncomfortable as possible. And that in itself is a talent!