The Girls

Janet Hallas and Susan Burt, lovers, live together just outside a village in England’s Midlands, where they run a gift shop in which they sell their homemade goat cheese, bread, jam, the eggs from their chickens, the honey from their bees, and their handcrafted articles of clothing. One hot day, their idyllic existence is shattered when a boar, on his way to be bred with a neighboring sow, escapes from his trailer (excited, perhaps, by the squeals of Tatty Wakeham’s pet sow which had just passed by astride Wakeham’s bike’s handlebars) and rumbles through “the girls’” gift shop.

This event triggers in Susan a need for a change, so she books a tour to Crete in order to “find herself.” Left alone, Janet attends a craft fair, where she meets Alan, a maker of early musical instruments. Prompted by loneliness, she finds her friendly feeling for Alan turning sexual, and she spends the night with him, her first and last night with a man. Two weeks later, Susan returns and the lovers are reunited and strengthened in their commitment. When Janet shows signs of pregnancy, the girls decide to rear the child together.

All goes well; Janet delivers Butch, a charming baby boy, and life settles into a pattern of gardening, crafts, cheesemaking, and parenting. They have not, however, seen the last of Alan. He visits, discovers that he is a father, and gets himself killed by an edgy, premenstrual, and threatened Susan. The girls hide his body in the septic tank. The rest of the novel is a mixture of hilarity and horror, the stench from the septic tank wafting amid the bobbing blossoms in the garden.

John Bowen’s latest novel is rich and satisfying, his characters flawed yet poignant. He manages simultaneously to horrify and amuse as the deceptively simple plot fairly glitters with the flash of his wit and the sparkle of his language. Bowen allows the reader to solve the ostensible mystery with ease. Yet there remains another, more profound mystery which may be a greater challenge.