Book Review: Darling Girls by Sally Hepworth

FIFTY+SA Arts Reviewer, Dr Diana Carroll, shares the latest ‘ domestic noir’ novel from one of her favourite writers.
Dr Diana Carroll

I love Sally Hepworth! It’s no wonder that this Melbourne-based writer is a regular on the New York Times best-selling lists. She was a speaker at Adelaide Writers Week in 2023 with her presentation entitled “The Pleasures of a Page Turner”. As her bio for that stated, she “is probably the only Australian author who has been featured on a billboard in New York’s Times Square”. Her books are popular across the globe and have been translated into twenty languages. Darling Girls is her ninth novel and won’t disappoint fans new and old. If you loved The Younger Wife and The Soulmate you should beg, borrow, or buy this one immediately.

Hepworth excels at ‘domestic noir’ with her tales of families and friends, of love and longing, and of our dreams and disappointments. These are universal themes that clearly resonate with audiences everywhere. But as the ‘domestic noir’ tag implies, Hepworth often takes us into the darker side of life in suburbia. Indeed, Darling Girls is somewhat bleaker than her earlier novels as it deals with the trauma of shattered families and children in foster care. Hepworth writes quite movingly in the acknowledgements about her research into the lived experience of fostering. “I will be forever changed by these conversations,” she says.

The book begins with three women being contacted by detectives about human remains found at a property called Wild Meadows. As the back-story gradually unfolds, we discover that Norah, Alicia, and Jessica, are not biological sisters – their sibling bond was formed when they were all foster children there with the mysterious Miss Fairchild as their carer.

There are clearly painful memories, secrets and shame associated with their time at Wild Meadows and they are not keen to revisit the past. Hepworth maintains a tight rein on events as she reveals what really happened, scattering tiny clues here and there like gingerbread crumbs in the forest. It’s testament to her skill as a writer that after some 350 pages, the ending is still unexpected. As the well-known proverb says ‘old sins cast long shadows’ but are they victims, witnesses, or suspects? And who is buried under the old house?

In familiar Hepworth style, the book changes narrator and point-of-view regularly. Each chapter is brief, often just a couple of pages, making it a literal page turner. “I’ll just read the next one…” you think to yourself as the entire afternoon disappears. Darling Girls is definitely one to enjoy alone as you get to know the characters and understand their lives; it would also be a great choice for book clubs with its difficult themes and multiple twists and turns in the story. Let the robust discussion begin!

Note: Please do be aware that the book contains descriptions of child abuse that can be upsetting.

Darling Girls is published by Pan Macmillan, RRP $34.99


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