Book Review: The Girl She Was by Rebecca Freeborn

The Girl She Was…

About the Book:

At the cafe in the small town of Glasswater Bay where she works after school, seventeen-year-old Layla enters into a volatile relationship with her married boss.

Twenty years later, she receives a message from her former boss’s wife.

As Layla relives the events from her youth that have shaped her present, her past starts to infiltrate her life in a way she can no longer ignore.

She’s run from her town, her friends and the memory of what she’s done. Now she must face them all.

My Thoughts:

The Girl She Was is a blisteringly good read, but I’ll be honest with you from the get-go: it’s also achingly sad and even a little bit horrifying. Domestic violence is never easy to read about but when it involves a seventeen-year-old girl and an older man it takes on a particular shade of nasty.

‘I sat down on the lid of the toilet, my head in my hands. Was I bad because I let him do those things to me? Was there a part of me that liked being treated like that? Why hadn’t I ever asked him to stop?’

The story is narrated by Layla as both a seventeen-year-old (the girl she was) and as a thirty-seven-year-old (the woman she is now). Layla is a woman haunted by her past, filled with self-loathing, not only for her younger self, but also for the woman she sees in the mirror each day. Her relationship history is filled with countless degrading sexual encounters and violent boyfriends, all stemming back to her very first relationship: the one she had at seventeen with her married boss.

‘I couldn’t understand why I found it so impossible to say no to him, why he was always able to convince me that I needed him.’

Rebecca Freeborn skilfully steers us through this relationship and allows us to comprehend exactly how a woman might find herself caught in such a violent and inescapable situation. The age difference – in this case eleven years, but to her seventeen, this was significant for Layla. The flattery and devotion in the initial stages. The false promises and excuses. The sexual control and dominance. The gas-lighting. The physical violence. The threats and stalking. All of it creeping in and destroying Layla, bit by bit until she could barely even recognise herself. Yes, this was a tough read, but it’s an utterly important one. Note though, this novel does contain many scenes of sexual violence which may be distressing for some.

‘And finally, I realised the truth. How had I kept giving him the benefit of the doubt when he’d given me so many demonstrations of the violence inside him? That look in his eyes … a man like that wasn’t capable of love. And there was nothing I’d ever be able to do to change that. It wasn’t my fault.’

There are many issues hung out to dry within this novel, too many for me to pick apart and examine here, plus, I don’t want to pre-empt your thoughts if you go ahead and read it (which I hope you do). But one thing I want to focus on is the shame cast onto women who are abused. When Layla’s relationship with Scott became known publicly, she was shamed as a slut, a home wrecker – even by her friends; and thanks to his relentless gas-lighting, Layla believed this. And she went on believing this, on and on through successive abusive relationships. Even in her marriage, which was not abusive, all was not well. She still believed this about herself, loathed herself, her body, her face. It was heartbreaking. One other thing I want to particularly mention was how the author introduced the damage that certain expectations about and attitudes towards women can do. Layla’s husband Cam was a decent man, but he had his own attitudes about women that were not exactly healthy and this ridiculous idea that Layla needed to be a clean slate for him; like a child crossed with an ostrich, not wanting to hear a thing about her past. To someone as damaged as Layla was, this was even more damaging. I’m glad the author introduced this into the story and made addressing it an integral part of the plot.

‘Everything within Layla resisted the term. She wasn’t mentally ill; she was just inadequate. But maybe she didn’t deserve to feel like this. Maybe it wasn’t normal. Maybe she could be free of this constant, dragging burden.’

The strong themes of female friendship were a lovely bonus within this novel and I particularly enjoyed Layla’s 20-year high school reunion. This is very much a novel for our times and while it deals with extremely heavy and distressing themes, I believe it does so with a meticulous attention to raising awareness and a high degree of affectability. Compelling and highly recommended, add this one to your reading list today.


Thanks is extended to Pantera Press for providing me with a review copy via NetGalley of The Girl She Was.

About the Author:

Rebecca Freeborn lives in the beautiful Adelaide Hills with a husband, three kids, a dog, a cat, a horse, more books than she can fit in her bookcase and an ever-diminishing wine collection.

She has a Bachelor of Arts in Professional and Creative Communications and now works as a communications and content editor for the South Australian Government where she screams into the void against passive voice and unnecessary capitalisation.

Rebecca loves strong, witty female characters, and wrote Hot Pursuit because she wanted to escape the focus on fashion and personal appearance that is so common in contemporary women’s fiction. Her second book, Misconception, explores the silence around stillbirth and miscarriage.

She writes before the sun comes up and spends her moments of spare time reading novels and feminist articles and compulsively checking Facebook.

The Girl She Was
Published by Pantera Press
Releases 31st March 2020

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