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Friend Request by Laura Marshall

A psychological thriller for the social media age, Laura Marshall’s melodrama-tinged Friend Request takes place in London and Norwich in the present day and in the late 1980s, when protagonist Louise Williams is in the amateur dramatics society commonly known as high school.

Any survivor of female adolescence in an all-girls’ school is likely to recognize Marshall’s depiction of alpha-beta dynamics, which have Louise caught between queen bee Claire Barnes, erstwhile friend Sophie Hannigan, who is determined to ingratiate herself with the leader of the pack, and new girl Maria Weston, dark rumours of whose past in London have followed her to Norwich.

If Louise is the heart of the story – and she is, highly intelligent and with a clear, insistent voice, but full of self-doubt and preoccupied by others’ perception of her – then Maria is its spirit, a ghost who won’t relinquish her grip. Louise survived high school, albeit with a neurotic hangover, but Maria disappeared during a party 25 years ago and was never seen again.

The circumstances of her vanishing, and why Louise blames herself for it, take nearly the full span of the novel to be told, but a version of Maria grips the narrative from the start, when someone, under the missing girl’s name, sends Louise a Facebook friend request. Soon enough, the direct messages begin, and Louise understands she is being stalked.

Marshall ably juggles a lot of thematic and narrative balls to produce one of the year’s stronger thrillers.

While the novel ostensibly takes place in various public and private spaces in London and Norwich, today and during Louise’s high school years in the late 1980s, its dominant setting is the closed, dark, anguished space inside her head

Friend request on Facebook from Maria Weston, who has been dead for 25 years – followed by a series of messages that suggest she is being stalked – circumscribed life, devoted to 4yo son, divorced from faithless Sam, only child of parents from whom she is all but estranged

Anyone who survived female adolescence, esp in all-girls’ school, likely to recognise Marshall’s descriptions of alpha-beta dynamics

Maria moved to the new school from London, tells Louise Williams it was due to “a bit of trouble with some of the other girls” and rumours are colourful and ubiquitous – Louise friends with Sophie Hannigan who is in turn friends with Joanne and queen bee Claire Barnes, who only tolerate Louise

Louise a typical protagonist for a novel of this type – highly intelligent but full of self-doubt and preoccupied by others’ perception of her – her online interaction with Sophie, first contact in a quarter-century, leaves her beset by self-consciousness: I’m an adult now, I think. I don’t need her approval, but I’m not even convincing myself

Sharne Bay High School, 1989 Class Reunion – Esther’s motive for attending: And I’m afraid there’s a little part of me – or maybe not so little – that wants to show them, people that might still be laughing about me, or even worse pitying me in a corner of their minds.’

Thoroughly unsettling depiction of a school reunion whose attendees are carrying guilt and secrets

Since Sam left, I have had to shrink my world, in order for the important things not to fall apart: Henry; my business.

So I keep posting, liking, commenting; it stops me from falling out of my world completely.

What she won’t be able to see is that I was married to Sam, that’s if she doesn’t know already. I removed all the evidence of him from my timeline two years ago when I realised that he’d deleted his own Facebook account, the one with the story of us on it. He had simply started again. All the holidays, the days out, our wedding photos carefully scanned in several years after the event: gone, replaced by his shiny new narrative. He wiped me clean away like a dirty smear on the window.

Unspools in present-tense first-person voice, lots of clipped sentences, lending intensity and immediacy, as when Louise feels she is being followed while travelling by tube to meet Sophie

Standard allusions to “what happened” – Maria referred to by Sophie as “the girl who drowned”

The calculus of conditional female friendship, how spending time with one means being ostracized by others – Louise is not an instigator but is party to base and nasty tricks played on Maria

One outsider, Esther Harcourt, dumped by Louise as they arrived at high school, now a successful solicitor – describes Louise and Sophie’s treatment of Maria as bullying

The potential for a relationship with Pete: I’m too mixed up, too dark; I’m just too alone to be with anyone else.

Ending defies the Seinfeld mantra “No hugging, no learning”.

Previously reviewed on Coast FM.

Reviewer: Stephanie Jones


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