When ITV dramatized Dorothy Koomson’s novel, The Ice Cream Girls, into a 3-part television series in 2013, I deliberately abstained from watching it in order to read the book first. I am frankly relieved that I have finally found an excuse to pick it up, thanks to this literary challenge. The novel is set mainly in Brighton, in East Sussex and deals with the complex relationship between two women, hardly more than mere strangers to one another, who were nevertheless thrown together in a series of dark events during their adolescence, the consequences of which are still wreaking havoc around them 20 years later.
Serena, brought up comfortably in a middle-class home, the daughter of a lawyer and with a bright future ahead of her, catches the attention of her history teacher Mr Marcus Halnsley at age 14. Serena’s naiveté and insecurity instantly become food for Marcus’ ego; he abuses his position to weave her into his paedophilic web of sex, fear, violence and manipulation. Moreover, he uses Serena’s teenage capacity for self-loathing to turn her into his slave – she is desperate to please him and far too scared and dependent on him to flee. At the same time, Serena truly believes she and Marcus are in love.
Much to her horror, however, Marcus soon takes another innocent under his spine-chilling wing – Poppy – who is Serena’s opposite on the social spectrum, being from a working-class, unwelcoming home, but who is similarly tricked into believing Marcus’ lies. Marcus pits Serena and Poppy against each other – the pair meet occasionally, converse rarely, compete for Marcus’ ‘affection’ always.
Then a dreadful accident happens. Before they know it, both girls – now 18 and 19 – are being trialled for Marcus’ murder. Each girl blames the other. But eventually, Poppy is incarcerated for twenty years, while Serena goes free.
Twenty years later, Poppy is freed and returns to Brighton, desperate to punish Serena; Serena, meanwhile, dreads the resurrection of the past and its impacts on the lives of her husband and children. But will the truth ever come out?
I think anyone would agree (despite how poorly I may have summarised it myself) that the plot is a desperately gripping and original one. In particular, the abusive relationship the girls find themselves in is constructed so chillingly as to stay with the reader long after the novel ends. It is, in fact, difficult to describe the tools Koomson uses to build Marcus’ fortress of fear: it is not so much the language of cruelty he uses, or the dreadful things he does, but rather the whole atmosphere of terror that keeps Poppy and Serena glued to him. Indeed, I suspect that this portrait of abusive relationships is incredibly realistic – Koomson has discussed the large number of harrowing real-life stories she listened to whilst researching the book – and is what leads to the fact that outsiders (in the novel’s case, the jury in the murder trial) are unable to understand why the girls did not simply walk away. In contrast, the reader cannot but understand, being wrapped up in their emotions so vividly.
I loved the character of Poppy too, as someone recently released from prison and whose struggle to belong in the modern, unfamiliar world is just as difficult as her struggle to make sense of the past, and of the fact that she has, unjustifiably, had her whole youth stolen from her. “For a very long time,” Poppy narrates, “I thought the sky was that square of patchwork quilt because it was all I could see from most of the prison cells I’ve lived in” (25). But the sky is not square and the world is not of manageable, reasonable size; coming out into the real world Poppy is stunned at the “titanic sky, gigantic world, dazzling daylight, swarming streets […] People think that prisons are overcrowded, but this is overcrowded. This is like being trapped inside a swarm of insects. Everyone so close and big and moving, moving, moving” (25-6). Koomson paints her as dark, bitter and vengeful – all the characteristics you might expect from someone who has been wronged in life – and yet Poppy is also shown to be filled with the same innocence and vulnerability as she exhibited through her teenage years. Overall, Poppy is a marvellously complex and believable character.
Serena is less engaging. She has spent the last twenty years attending university, meeting her husband, having children and moving on with her life. Of course, she experiences constant fear of the past coming back to haunt her, and occasionally relives Marcus’ cruelty in uncontrollable flashbacks, but with a new name and Poppy (as well as the truth) locked up far away, she has had a much easier time of managing her recovery. Or, perhaps, she has simply delayed facing up to what happened.
Either way, I was ever so slightly disappointed with Serena as a character and the girls’ relationship. I wanted Serana’s dread of Poppy to be more apparent. I wanted to find, stifled somewhere deep within Serena, the same darkness that Poppy has grown to exhibit on the surface. I wanted their relationship to be more hateful, suspenseful, painful and yet also more closely interdependent – after all, only these two can know what Marcus did to them and what happened all those years ago. Only they have the capacity to deliver the understanding and empathy towards each other that they so desire from other loved ones in their lives. I think Koomson could definitely have further emphasised this tension, tragedy and irony. If she had done, this novel would have been a knock-out for me.
One more thing the novel does do cleverly, however, particularly in relation to its setting in Brighton, is to invert stereotypes. Upon mentioning Brighton, I’m sure a lot of people (including myself) would recall going on happy school trips or family staycations, being thrilled and goose-pimpled by paddling in the English Channel, clambering over pebbles, eating sticks of rock and having delicious soft serve ice cream cones gobbled from one’s hand by greedy seagulls. In other words, Brighton could very well be the epitome of the English seaside holiday town, couldn’t it?
For Poppy and Serena, who had grown up here, their experience of the town could not be more different. Rather than sea, sand and ice cream being associated with sunny frivolity, Marcus ensures their days out together could be recalled with no emotion except fear. Serena and Poppy are nicknamed “The Ice Cream Girls” by the media following the murder, due to a picture printed of their pair “eating ice cream and wearing […] string bikini[s]” (3): what may have been an iconic holiday image is in fact a memory teeming with hurt. As a result of their experiences, Serena has not been able to face ice cream ever since and Poppy will not let herself, even after her release, “head down to the beach, dip [her] toes in the water, feel the pebbles under [her] feet” (26) or enjoy her surroundings. Brighton holds neither a sense of comfort nor one of touristic allure for them.
In this way, Koomson repeatedly problematises the idyllic images of seaside Brighton. All the icons are there – including “Brighton pier […] adored with hundreds upon hundreds of lights” (5) – but their presence is meaningless to the girls, inspiring no sense of pride or belonging. In fact, Poppy all too readily admits “I do not belong in this world any more” (28), while Serena feels out of place in her very self, with the “dark acknowledgement” that she is a black girl “in a predominantly white area” (51-2). Ultimately, and ironically, it is Poppy who seems most likely to recover her sense of normality most quickly, for she eventually admits that in a tourist hub like Brighton she enjoys the fact that she can avoid attention and blend into real life amongst all the different people, for “you have to try really hard to stand out or look out of place” (227).
Overall, this aspect of the book is one of my favourite and one that makes it a perfect read for my challenge: you get a real sense of its Brighton setting and landscape, even though that sense is not quite of the type you might expect. The plot is fantastic, the character of Poppy exceptional – but overall I was left wanting a bit more drama. For me, the novel is 3/5 stars.
Next time I’ll be reviewing Alecia Stone’s The Talisman of El. Keep a lookout!
KOOMSON, Dorothy. The Ice Cream Girls. London: Sphere, 2010.
Featured Image: Brighton Beach with the iconic burnt-out West Pier in the background.