CW: sexual assault, incel culture, self-harm
Owen Pick is an odd duck, whose unhappy childhood has transitioned into a miserable adulthood. After the death of his mother, he finds himself “in Tessie’s spare room with the saggy mattress, which, like everything about his tragic existence, he’d grown used to and come to accept unquestioningly.” Now in his thirties, he’s just lost his teaching job over allegations of sexual misconduct, and finds himself in a dangerous internet rabbit hole as he’s sucked into online ‘incel’ forums.
“Owen loves the comments, the grey places where the dusty trolls live; he loves to see how low some people will stoop to get the endorphin rush of a reaction.”
Cate and her husband Roan Fours live across the street from Owen with their two children. They typecast Owen as a creep, and suspect him of being responsible for a spate of attacks on young women in their leafy Hampstead neighbourhood.
Saffyre, the eponymous ‘invisible girl’, is seventeen years old and struggling with the weight of childhood trauma. She was sent to see psychiatrist Roan as a child, after her uncle found her self-harming. But she felt abandoned and at a loss when he told her their therapy was done and that she no longer needed his support.
When Saffyre vanishes, Owen becomes prime suspect. From the moment he is taken in for questioning, he is vilified in the media, who have a field day from his oddball looks and shifty demeanour. When apprehended by the police at his house, he has just recently attempted to cut his fringe, and has dried blood down his forehead from a slip – and the journalists are waiting at the gate, baying for blood. The sensationalism and trial in the court of public opinion is reminiscent of much British tabloid coverage, often ruining lives in the pursuit of selling papers.
The split first-person narration takes us into the heads of Owen, Cate and Saffyre. We see each of them dissect their lives and what’s brought them to this point, with insight into their unspoken pasts, difficult relationships and complex feelings of self-worth. The anchor point is the single event that occurs on a dark, cold Valentine’s Day night.
Jewell writes in three very different perspectives, and I found Owen’s character to be the most interesting. She explores, in a nuanced and careful way, the slippery slope of radicalisation for isolated young men, rejected by society at large. In incel culture, these extremist views take the form of hatred against women, and we watch Owen grapple with these horrifying beliefs and try to reconcile it with who he sees himself to be as a person. But all of our characters are grappling with unresolved trauma.
“She has been trying so hard to stop thinking of herself as a bad person, but as she lies in bed that night, the sudden awful knowledge of it gnaws at her consciousness until she feels raw and unpeeled.”
I’d been in a two-week reading slump, and I needed a fast-paced psychological drama to get me out of it. Thankfully, Lisa Jewell delivered with this atmospheric and evocative novel. I’m knocking off half a star for the ending, which was all a little too pat and easily resolved, and I would have loved to see greater character development in a more built-out narrative. But despite those qualms, I devoured this one in a couple of sittings.