In 2005, Chloe Higgins was seventeen years old. She and her mother, Rhonda, stayed home so that she could revise for her exams while her two younger sisters Carlie and Lisa went skiing with their father. On the way back from their trip, their car veered off the highway, flipped on its side and burst into flames. Both her sisters were killed. Their father walked away from the accident with only minor injuries.
This book is about what happened next.
In a memoir of breathtaking power, Chloe Higgins describes the heartbreaking aftermath of that one terrible day. It is a story of grieving, and learning to leave grief behind, for anyone who has ever loved, and lost.
The Girls by Chloe Higgins is a memoir about the death of Chloe’s two sisters in 2005, and the aftermath.
While Chloe was studying for her HSC at the family home in Western Sydney, her father and her two sisters were on their way from an annual trip to the snowfields. On a highway near Canberra, Chloe’s father veered off to the other side of the road — presumably falling asleep — and he hits another car. Their vehicle flips and the back of the car bursts into flames. Chloe’s two sisters are killed, but their father walks away with minor injuries.
This is a memoir about grief, and what comes after a tragic event. It’s about how Chloe’s life went down a very different path than what she’d have planned as a young girl.
The Girls is tender and well-written, but also just very heartbreaking. People all over the world experience heartbreak, grief, and death every day, but when you focus on one person’s story and read beyond the tragedy, you realise the effect such events can have on a person’s health and wellbeing. We read about Chloe’s life beyond the death of her sisters, and we experience how her and her parents have attempted to move past the car accident.
“I am ashamed by how little I remember them. I’ve been reading books lately where people write their memories of losing a husband to cancer, their eyesight at eighteen, their father to the Vietnamese/American War.”
Chloe turns to sex work, drugs, alcohol and self harm to cope with her loss. In a way, focussing on these activities helped her avoid thinking about or remembering her sisters.
It’s stomach-dropping to read about Chloe’s father’s reaction to the accident — his guilt, his tears, his mental deterioration. Chloe does her best to maintain a relationship with her mother and father, but it’s complicated for all parties. They’re coping in the only ways they know how, and Chloe — being the only child left — sometimes finds it easier to not be at home.
“Sometimes I am well for weeks at a time: my head is clear, it is easy to smile, I feel less tension than usual around other people. I spent years working out how to get to this place, and often it comes down to routine.”
The plot jumps around a little, and at times feels a little uneven and jolting. The first third of the book centres around the girls, the accident, and the aftermath of the accident. The middle third of the book is years later when Chloe is in psychiatric care and is then working as a prostitute. The final third focuses on the girls again. The back and forth did feel a little inorganic, but the writing is beautiful and lyrical — poetic, even.
One of the toughest sections of the book is reading Chloe’s father’s diary entries from after the accident. He regained very little memories of that afternoon, and so he relies on information from others to understand what happened.
At first, they thought it was a car fault. But then after eye witness statements, it’s clear that Maurice fell asleep at the wheel. This information is incredibly difficult for him to swallow, and even in the present, he tries to find other reasons why the accident may have happened.
“We have a good day at the beach, Kris and I. I am glad Mum made him get the razor off me, but I like the little scab that is forming across my wrist. I don’t want anyone else to see it, just my parents and Kris, so they will know I need help.”
An exploration of grief, family, understanding and identity, The Girls is a devastating, harrowing read. It’d be a tough read for anyone, even if you don’t have children yourself, but the messages within its pages are important, relevant and universal.
Thank you to the publisher for mailing me a review copy in exchange for an honest review.
Pan Macmillan Publishers