All The Books I Can Read

1 girl….2 many books!

Review: The Girl She Was by Rebecca Freeborn

on April 23, 2020

The Girl She Was
Rebecca Freeborn
Pantera Press
2020, 386p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/}:

‘She’d long ago stopped wondering whether anyone would find out what she’d done. It was in the past, and Layla didn’t dwell on the past.’

Layla was just like any other teenager in the small town of Glasswater Bay: she studied hard, went out with her friends and worked at the local cafe after school. But when her attractive, married boss turned his attention on her, everything changed.

Twenty years later, Layla’s living a quiet life in the suburbs with a loving husband and two children. She’s finally left the truth of what happened behind. Until she receives a text message: I know what you did.

For years, she’s outrun her past, turning away from her friends and her home town. Now her past is about to catch up.

This book makes for incredibly uncomfortable reading.

I’m 38, about the age that Layla is in the “current” timeline. Like Layla, I’m married with two kids although my kids are older than hers and I’ve done the years of mindnumbing routine that is children under five. I’ve known what it’s like to be so grateful when your other half walks in the door and you can just….walk away for a few minutes. Take a breath and be alone and know that someone won’t die while you do it. A bit dramatic but that’s sometimes what parenting feels like!

Layla is supervising bath time when she receives a Facebook messenger message that states ‘I know what you did’. She knows who the person is who sent it and it takes her back twenty years to when she was just a teenager, studying for exams, working in a cafe and trying to decide what she wanted to do with her life. Part of a friendship group of three, Layla found herself slightly left out when her two friends got boyfriends and suddenly wanted to include them in everything, even stuff they were supposed to do together. Although they try to set her up with boys in her year, no one really interests her until her boss Scott – older, married, treats her like an adult – suddenly seems interested. Layla knows it’s wrong….but her inexperience and immaturity is no match for someone with light years more.

There were times when reading this book gave me anxiety. For lots of different reasons, but mostly because in different circumstances, I think I could’ve been Layla. The way in which her boss approaches her, when she’s kind of at her lowest, feeling unattractive and left out, is incredibly calculated. His attention at first is flattering, after all he’s a grown man (28 I think), he’s married, he’s considered hot. Layla is thrilled and excited that she might be the one who has interested him, despite the shortcomings she feels that she has but she’s also nervous and at first, doesn’t want to cross a line. But slowly, slowly, Scott manipulates and uses Layla, gaslighting her, threatening her, alternately begging her, professing love and devotion and pulling away from her until she’s desperate for any scrap of love or affection again. Then it escalates, slowly, firstly with threats of harm then actual physical violence. Layla is trapped in this cycle where she finally realises that this cannot go on and she screws up enough courage to leave only to be dragged back in by his games. She’s just seventeen, she’s never had a relationship, she really doesn’t have a lot of places to turn when things get dark: her friends tell her to end it because he’s married, because it can’t go anywhere but they don’t really see everything that’s happening and Layla is too gripped by shame to tell them.

This book is an examination of an abusive relationship with an imbalance of power that damages Layla in ways that no one can imagine. It has such far reaching affects into her future, it completely destroys any self worth she might’ve had, any belief that she had more to offer someone than just a body. It’s also a look at blame – who receives it and who gets away with minimal amounts. Layla is seventeen but not seen as a victim, more like an aggressor, a stereotypical home wrecker. What defense could she have legitimately had against someone like Scott, who had been so charming and friendly for a long time, before making his move? You get the feeling from the way Scott operates that Layla was not the first he’d probably singled out for his attention but he seems to face no public censure.

This book takes an even darker, more unexpected turn as the messages Layla receives escalate in seriousness until the person threatens to tell Layla’s husband about her past if she doesn’t agree to meet with them. Therefore Layla must return to the small town she grew up in, a place she hasn’t set foot in in over twenty years. There are a lot of demons that she must face in going home, not just that teenage affair but also the implosion of her high school friendships and the actions that led to the fallout. Her twenty year high school reunion seems like a good way to exercise a lot of demons and maybe even build a few bridges as well as relieve herself of the burden she’s carried for two decades. No matter the consequence.

This is a book that will resonate with a lot of people in many different ways. I think a lot of people have known a Scott – whether to the extent that Layla did, or even just someone they knew in passing. I know I have. And a lot of people will relate to the relationship that seems so perfect at first but then slowly disintegrates into a nightmare. And there are relationships that leave scars, deep scars, some that people never get over. And there are friendships as well, that can define you. This was a powerful read, one that affected me deeply in quite a lot of ways. The entire story was handled with skill, I really connected with Layla and I could actually put myself in her place and understand how she ended up where she did. Everything that had happened to her, her desperation to protect the life she had, her reluctance to confide her past sins in her husband and finally her desire to shed her burdens.


Book #74 of 2020

The Girl She Was is book #26 of the Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2020

3 responses to “Review: The Girl She Was by Rebecca Freeborn

  1. Mic says:

    fabulous review, and sounds like a fabulous book… that I don’t think I could read.

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