This review is for The Burning Girls by CJ Tudor, published in Feb. 2021 by Ballentine Books. Currently, it has around 4,200 ratings on Goodreads and an average of 4.17 stars. It can be categorized as a thriller/suspense, paranormal thriller, mystery, and probably horror (don’t hold me to it on the last one, I don’t know much about horror but I see this book included on some of the lists). My Bookstagram post includes some of my initial thoughts about this book, but in this blog post, I want to expand on some of these because I gave this book the elusive 5 star rating!
An unconventional vicar moves to a remote corner of the English countryside, only to discover a community haunted by death and disappearances both past and present–and intent on keeping its dark secrets–in this explosive, unsettling thriller from acclaimed author C. J. Tudor.– Goodreads blurb
Personally, I’m quite stingy with the 5 star ratings. Not because I think I’m so special and my thoughts are the supreme stamp of approval (or disapproval), but rather I save the 5 stars for what they denote: a really special read. The Burning Girls was one of my first 5 star ratings since The Five (the Jack the Ripper nonfiction) some months ago.
The main reason why I didn’t hesitate to give this book 5 stars is because I had that “I can’t wait to get home so I can finish that book!” feeling for the first time in a long time. It’s one of those special moods where you find something that just clicks with you. I was always that way with mysteries. They just have that impact of me.
The Burning Girls is the first CJ Tudor book that I read, but I will be reading the other books by this author and keeping an eye out for upcoming publications. Below, this post will start with a summary (spoiler-free) then move into a review/discussion of the book that will have indicators of any spoilers that you should avoid if you would like to read this book. Importantly, I will also note any content warnings at the bottom of this post (some are mild spoilers, but I mean, they’re general enough to not really give anything away and they’re important).
Reverend Jack Brooks (woman, going by Jack) and her teenage daughter are sent packing to a new post in the English countryside. They’re going from a big, diverse, industrial city (Nottingham) to a small, close-knit and historic village. With this comes the typical teenager-is-mad problems, but there are some unique (and spooky) challenges to be faced almost immediately. First, the previous vicar has committed suicide in the chapel, which itself is marred by a deadly and bloody past related to the Protestant martyrs were burned at the stake (recall some English history here). Of course, this recent tragedy brings up the issue of what happened in this church, as well as some awkward circumstances for the new vicar, Jack. She is filling a gap in the community that is also a sore wound.
Secondly, there seems to be some bad blood between Jack (already??) and members of the community who are regarding her appointment as 1) unconventional due to her gender, 2) suspicious due to her origin (city slicker! And she has had some tragedy in her home appointment), and 3) unwanted attention to certain parts of the community with Jack’s prying nosiness (but in reality, it’s warranted). Her daughter also attracts negative attention from local teens who are totally just… awful. She strikes a friendship up with another loner, and they explore the weird town together.
The book essentially switches up between Jack, her daughter, and a third perspective which is the narration of a stalker character who has just been released from prison. He’s after Jack, and although she has moved down south and now goes by a different name, it seems the entire time that she is in impending danger. We don’t get too much of this side plot until it matters (he spends a lot of time getting down to where she is, then it becomes a major part of the story).
The point of the story is really this: Jack thinks something is weird about the chapel and the little house on site, some of the villagers seem very suspicious, and she’s thinking that there may be 1) criminal elements in the recent past and 2) hauntings or at least her own delusions playing into the circumstances of the history of the town. Jack spends a lot of time digging around the chapel, uncovering local history, and interacting with her daughter who also learns quite a bit on her own about the area. I won’t spoil the things they are uncovering (obviously, that would be crappy of me), but this is the general idea of the plot. There are several subsidiary things going on — teenage romance and bully problems, parenting problems, stalker problems, Jack hates journalists problems, some rich guy may be doing abuse or crimes problems. Oh, and creepy headless burning girls keep showing up and haunting the place. That’s also a problem.
Like I said earlier, I loved this book. I thought primarily that the author did a great job at entertaining the reader with modern, well-written, and insightful prose. I actually kind of liked that some of the chapters were very short. It kept the perspectives from being too drawn out. I am noticing that a lot of fiction books are utilizing this dual perspective technique, and sometimes, it can be hard to follow. I thought that Tudor did a great job using this storytelling method. I was not bogged down with too much detail in one perspective; importantly, I kept up with everyone and it just made sense. It allowed for multiple things to be going on at once, like the teenage daughter is off with her friends in town while her mom is seeing burning girls in the chapel. It’s a good balance. LOL.
Spoilers after this line.
I was actually quite pleased with the way the author framed all of the twists in this book. The primary one for me was the “is this rich grumpy guy with obviously depressed / abused family members the villain?” But really, that would be too easy. He’s the first one we meet and the entire book is just entirely uncooperative. He has motive (keep family name and prestige). However, we are also introduced to the other motives and happenings, including some characters that are not pleased with Jack’s appointment for whatever reason. Some who have a creepy demeanor and just seem to always be in the shadows. There is the constant looming of the stalker man who is coming down from the top of England and surely will arrive in the south where our setting is. We have the sadistic and mean teenagers who go around attempting to hurt our main character. It is a lot to wonder about. Of course, there are the girls who disappeared many years ago which seems to be a very sore subject for the small town. It is a lot to take in.
We also have a few problems to even solve. Are we dealing with pure paranormal? Is there some sort of trick going on and why would it be? Essentially, we need to know why the hauntings, messages, and other spooky things are happening. Does it have something to do with Jack’s prior post, where she was part of a tragic ending for a young girl? Tudor did a good job of adding a lot of subtext and additional plot devices without getting too convoluted.
Perhaps my favorite part of the story was that the paranormal aspect never really is explained. They say that the burning girls appear when someone is in danger. Is it a sign that they are the danger? In this book, no. They are warning Jack and her daughter that danger is coming. Is it the stalker? We should think so, knowing everything he has done to be imprisoned and then everything after his release. But even still…. no.
There are a lot of good twists. The last being the identity of Jack. I actually had a hunch with this one when the stalker said that he “was home” at the abandoned house. There is a bit of looseness to this twist that kind of feels like a hit-and-run, perhaps even a bit unbelievable. I would actually put more credit to the paranormal than Jack being able to hide this twist from her narration of the move down to Sussex and her life there. It just seems a bit unlikely, but at the same time, not horribly done.
I think that it’s important to point out that this book’s writing includes some pretty horrifying scenes. I’m reminded of the car scene in which Jack is kidnapped and put in the back of the trunk. That is one of the most grueling scenes I’ve read in a bestseller in a long time. I am appreciative that Tudor actually pushes the boundaries a bit. The evil of the villain (if not multiple villains) is scarier than the paranormal (which is pretty freaking scary).
There are some passages that I think warrant content warnings for readers. Please be advised that there is heavy description of abuse, violence, suicide sexual abuse, sexual abuse by religious figure, murder (gruesome and quite a bit of it), kidnapping, stalkers, spousal abuse, parental abuse, religious abuse, abuse of kids. I think I got everything, but you know, that’s already a big list.
Ultimately, I really enjoyed this book. I think that Tudor is a talented writer with a lot to offer to the thriller/suspense drama (I was actually thrilled and spooked AND tricked by some twists!). Highly recommended.