I can remember the moment I finished reading Undone and let out a big wail. My heart was well and truly destroyed. From that moment on, I knew that Cat Clarke was a seriously special talent in the YA world. That meant that I was extra excited when I was asked by the lovely people at Books with Bite to reveal the cover of her next book, Girlhood.
Only recently was I lamenting the disappointing lack of new boarding school books in YA. I was obsessed with them when I was younger but the trend has slowly died out. In comes Cat Clarke to the rescue, however, which has made Girlhood a must-read for me.
Girlhood follows Harper, a teenage girl who tries desperately to fit into an expensive boarding school, while struggling to escape the guilt of her twin sister Izzy’s death and her part in it. But a new girl at the school seems to understand Harper, and she’s lost a sister too. Finally Harper feels secured and…loved. But then Kirsty’s behaviour becomes more erratic…Why is her life a perfect mirror of Harper’s? And why is she so obsessed with Harper’s dead sister?
Girlhood is a darkly compulsive story, about girl cliques, love, death, friendship, anorexia, and growing up under the shadow of grief.
The cover has been designed by Sinem Erkas and Girlhood will be released on May 4th by Quercus Children’s Books.
Here’s a sneak peek of the first chapter:
We always have a midnight feast on the first night back. Because that’s what you do at boarding school, right?
When we were younger, Jenna and I were obsessed with boarding-school books. We desperately wanted to be the twins at St Clare’s. Almost every night I’d sneak over to her bed after Mum turned out the lights. We’d put the duvet over our heads and take turns reading to each other by torchlight. Two peas in a cosy little pod.
And somehow I ended up at Duncraggan Castle, just like in the stories. But Jenna’s not with me. I had to come here alone.
I wasn’t alone for long though.
‘Would you rather . . . have muffins for hands or squirrels for feet?’ Rowan leans back and crosses her arms, smug as you like.
Lily snorts with laugher while Ama clinks her mug against Rowan’s.
‘Well, that depends,’ says Ama, now mock-serious. ‘Do the muffins regenerate? Can I choose what flavour? Can I choose different flavours, depending on the day? Oh, and are the squirrels red or grey?’
Rowan’s ready. ‘They regenerate on a daily basis. You can choose any flavour. Grey squirrels. Those poor little bastards have such a bad rep.’
Lily starts on a rant about the plight of the red squirrel, and I put my hand over her mouth to shut her up.
I think I’ve decided, but I have a question that needs answering first. ‘Can you control the squirrels though? Like, with a tiny pair of reins?’
Rowan gives that some thought. ‘Yes. But they don’t come already trained.
It’s a lot of work, you know. Squirrel-training is a very serious business.’
‘Then it’s easy! I’m Team Squirrel. Ama? Lil?’
Lil votes muffins (as long as they’re made with organic flour). Ama goes for squirrels ‘because it would be like having pets with you WHEREVER YOU GO.’
I ask Rowan what she’d choose. ‘No idea,’ she shrugs. ‘It’s a really stupid question.’ I throw a pillow at her head.
‘I’ve got one!’ Lily pipes up. ‘This one’s for Ama.’
Lily stands up, between the two beds. She coughs as if clearing her throat. ‘Allow me to set the scene . . . It’s the night of the Christmas concert. The packed auditorium is hushed. The audience has sat through screeching violins and off-key oboes, but now things are looking up. Ama is set to take the stage, to dazzle and delight with her peerless piano playing . . .’
‘Bit overboard on the alliteration there if you ask me,’ Rowan stage- whispers.
‘Hush!’ Lily kneels down in front of Ama and takes her hand. ‘Ama, my dear, very bestest friend in all the world, would you rather . . . play your piece while your parents have sex on top of said piano . . .’
I can hardly hear Ama’s disgusted retching over our laughter.
‘Or would you rather have sex with a person of your choice up on stage, while your mum plays the piano?’ Lily’s ‘Would you Rather’s are always about sex.
The laughter escalates and I’m half worried Miss Renner will come knocking on the door. But last year Rowan somehow managed to find out that Miss Renner listens to Sounds of the Rainforest on her headphones to help her sleep. Maddox wouldn’t be too happy about that if she found out.
‘You are disgusting, Lily Carter. Disgusting and depraved.’
‘That may be true, but I’m afraid I’m going to need an answer. You know the rules.’
‘I can’t!’ Ama wails, but she knows we won’t let her get away with that. ‘OK, OK! I just . . . waaaaaah!’
‘Got any supplementary questions this time, Adebayo?’ Rowan asks, an eyebrow raised.
‘OK, first of all, I’m pretty sure my parents never, ever, ever have sex.’ Ama grimaces. ‘But I’m going to have to go with Option A. There is no way on earth I would ever have sex in front of anyone. ANYONE.’
‘But you’re perfectly happy for your parents to go at it like rabbits while you play Rachmaninov?’ I smile sweetly, but I’ve crossed the line. Ama hates Rachmaninov.
Our midnight feasts aren’t so much ‘lashings of ginger beer’ as ‘whatever booze we can smuggle in’. Sometimes – if someone remembers – we even have food. Tonight, we demolished a whole tin of yakgwa made by Rowan’s mum. Whoever invented deep-fried biscuits was a genius, no question.
Lily grimaces every time she takes a sip from her tiny bottle. ‘I fucking hate whisky!’
‘It’s better than nothing!’ Ama pouts. She was the one who managed to blag twenty miniatures on her flight back from Lagos.
‘Well, you should learn to love it. We are in Scotland, after all.’ I can’t stand the stuff either, but loyalty to my country wins out.
‘I’ll start liking whisky when Ama starts liking haggis,’ says Lily with a grin.
‘Aw, come on, Lil! It’s hardly the same thing! A sheep’s innards should stay on the inside as far as I’m concerned. And I know you agree with me, Little Miss I was a vegetarian before I could even spell the word.’ Ama’s not exactly slurring her words, but one more bottle and she will be.
‘I’m sure the sheep agrees with you,’ Rowan says, leaning past Ama to take one of the bottles. She opens it and sniffs deeply. ‘Ah, can’t you just see the purple heather in the glens? The noble stag surveying his kingdom . . .’
‘Right before he gets shot by some idiot banker who thinks that killing defenceless animals makes him more manly.’ Lily’s voice drips with disdain; it always does when she talks about her dad.
‘I bet Sharp-Shooter Kent over here could teach your dad a thing or two. She’s fucking deadly.’ Rowan jostles my shoulder.
‘Clay-pigeon shooting isn’t quite the same thing, Rowan. And I’m crap at it anyway.’ This isn’t strictly true. I’m now approaching the dizzy heights of ‘mediocre’, although Miss Whaite prefers to describe my skills as ‘solid’. Dad was appalled to find out the activities I signed up for when I started at Duncraggan. ‘Shooting?! Why did it have to be shooting? And rock-climbing? What’s that all about? Don’t they do any normal things there? Like . . . rounders!’ He had a point, but I’d made a promise to myself when I came here. I wanted to do the kind of weird shit you only get to do at boarding school. I gave up on the climbing after a few months, but I still shoot every week.
By two a.m. the whisky is gone and Rowan’s eyes are drooping closed every couple of minutes. ‘Come on you, let’s get you to bed.’ I drag her up into a sitting position. ‘Tomorrow’s going to be brutal.’
We say good night to Lily and Ama and creep next door to our room. The corridor is dimly lit – just enough light so you can find your way to the toilet in the middle of the night. The green ‘emergency exit’ sign glows incongruously above the door to the stairs. I wish they didn’t have to have things like that – fire doors and official-looking signs and strip lighting really don’t belong in a building like this one. So many changes and additions have been made over the years that it’s only in certain places that the building still feels like a proper castle. Those are the parts that get photographed to death and plastered all over the website. Those are the parts that made me want to come here.
‘Home, sweet home,’ I say, turning on the bedside lights. Our room is slightly smaller – Lily got the pick of the rooms after being elected Head Girl last year. And Rowan managed to convince Hozzie and Sylvana to swap so that we could stay next door to Lily and Ama for our last year at Duncraggan. It felt right. The four of us have been a little unit since Rowan took me under her wing when I arrived.
I think about that day a lot. How I felt when the car pulled up in front of the castle, tyres crunching on the gravel. How Dad patted my leg and said, ‘Well, this is going to be an adventure, isn’t it?’ even though the look on his face said otherwise. How everything seemed so strange and new and not like something a person like me should ever experience.
On my first night, lying awake and listening to the wind rattling against the windows, I wondered if I’d made a terrible mistake. I looked across the gloom towards the other bed and everything about the silhouette was wrong.
Jenna should have been there, sharing everything with me, like always. That’s what twins do. That’s who we are.
We all have our reasons for being at Duncraggan; some are more interesting than others. Most people are just here because their parents are filthy rich, and apparently the first thing you do when you’re filthy rich is make sure your children live as far away from you as possible. Bonus points for remote location in the wilds of Scotland. Terrible weather builds character, apparently.
Ama wanted to come here because of the reputation of the music department, but Lily had no choice in the matter. Rowan, Lily and Ama all have rich parents, but it’s not something we talk about. The clues are there if you pay attention. If you look at the labels on their clothes and listen closely for key words like ‘trust fund’ and ‘driver’ and ‘yacht’. I try not to hold it against them – the fact that money is meaningless to them, no matter how much they try to convince themselves otherwise. They don’t care about money because they’ve never had to think about it.
Rowan’s parents moved to South Korea when she was eight years old. Most kids would be upset by that, but apparently she had no fucks to give. She went to another boarding school in London before transferring here for senior school. She stayed here even when her parents moved back to Surrey last year, saying she’d never dream of abandoning us. ‘Together till the bitter end,’ she said.
Rowan’s the only one I talked to about why I came to Duncraggan. I asked her to tell Ama and Lily, because I thought they deserved to know but I couldn’t face telling them. It’s too tiring, telling the story over and over again. Working so hard to make sure you don’t tell the whole truth.
I hate talking about it, and the girls understand that. If one of them finds herself veering into dangerous conversational waters, the others will yank her back to safety. Rowan’s usually the one to do the yanking; I don’t know what I’d do without her. Sometimes I feel bad that I’ve never told her all of it. The worst of it.
The worst of it is simple. You can strip the excess flesh of the story down to the bare bones. You can shrink it and starve it and whittle it down to almost nothing.
That’s what happened to her.
Jenna died two years ago. Heart failure. Other things too: a perforated ulcer, a collapsed lung. But it was the heart that gave up on her. It couldn’t do the job it’s supposed to do; it didn’t have the fuel.
My twin sister was fifteen years old when she died. She weighed just under five stone.
It had started as a post-Christmas diet. A diet that was my idea.
You can preorder Girlhood at: