If you are often woken up by the creaking of the parquet or strange noises that you cannot explain, “Girl in the Walls” may not be for you.
In his first novel, AJ Gnuse, who earned an MFA in Creative Writing in 2019 from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, hits a lot of uncomfortable buttons. (In her thanks, Gnuse thanks a number of UNCW faculty members, including Clyde Edgerton, David Gessner, Philip Gerard, Rebecca Lee, and in particular Nina De Gramont.)
The heroine of the title “Girl in the Walls” is Elise, a 12 year old girl on the outskirts of a New Orleans suburb. A quiet girl, Elise makes few friends and lives mainly in books. She has made a habit of escaping boring lessons by hiding in closets and lockers.
Then, Elise’s parents are killed in a car accident. Elise slips out of a foster family window and heads for the house where she spent most of her childhood – a large rambling pseudo-plantation mansion with various added wings.
It has an attic, a large crawl space, a laundry chute and many cupboards. In addition, Elise is small enough that she can squeeze between interior and exterior walls. So she moves in.
“Elise wrapped herself in the house as if it were a winter coat,” writes Gnuse. “One that she hadn’t planned to take off.”
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Of course, there is already another family in the house, the Masons. He is a teacher, she is a real estate agent and they have two sons aged 16 and 13.
So Elise avoids them. When they are in the house, she hides. When they go to school or work, she goes out, even watches TV – although she is careful to leave everything as before.
She borrows carefully from the kitchen so they don’t notice, subsisting mostly on Raisin Bran.
Only Eddie, the 13-year-old dreamer, suspects Elise’s presence, but he thinks she is the product of his imagination. (Elise borrows her books; they share a taste for fantasy and mythology.)
This cannot go on, of course. First, Elise is discovered by Brody, another orphan from the neighborhood. Brody breaks into local homes, but he doesn’t stay. He and Elise become friends of sorts, playing games, but Brody’s propensity to “borrow” things his foster family can’t afford poses a serious threat.
Eventually, the 16-year-old Marshall rebels when his Pop Tarts and switchblade go missing. On an internet chat room, he comes into contact with a man named Jonah Traust, who claims that thousands of intruders are crawling into people’s homes and offers to help him evict them, for a price. .
Of course, you can still trust the people you meet on the internet, right?
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Gnuse picks up his pace as the narrative progresses, writing in bursts of two- and three-page chapters. The reader never has time to question the plausibility of Elise’s situation before the tempo accelerates to a dangerous conclusion.
“Girl in the Walls” meets the test as literary fiction. (Some people might remember Donna Tartt’s “The Little Friend.”) Still, it also works as a solid commercial thriller. Don’t be surprised to see it in drugstores or supermarkets right out of the pocket edition.
Ben Steelman can be reached at 910-616-1788 or at [email protected]
‘GIRL IN THE WALLS’
By AJ Gnuse
Ecco, $ 27.99