I recently finished reading the Forbidden Spaces trilogy by Helen Grant and I thought I'd review it here because I've realised I love and hate these books in equal measures and I need somewhere to vent my frustration and praise. You'll see what I mean. Anyway, the trilogy consists of (obviously) three books: Silent Saturday, The Demons of Ghent and Urban Legends. I'd read Silent Saturday a couple of times before, but I only acquired the other two relatively recently so this is the first time I'd read them all together and in one go.
I've been a fan of Helen Grant's books for a while (she is perhaps best known for The Vanishing of Katharina Linden, but The Glass Demon and Wish Me Dead are equally creepy and gruesome and all set in the German town of Bad Munstereifel) so I was beyond excited to find out she was writing some novels set in and around Brussels, i.e. close to where I live. The first book, Silent Saturday, is named after the day before Easter Sunday when - according to Flemish tradition - the church bells fly away to Rome to collect eggs for the children. It came out on the day itself of 2013, the day after which I attended the book launch at my local English bookshop where Helen Grant was chatting with readers and signing copies - I very boringly asked about her inspiration for the novel etc etc, but I was really happy to get a personally signed copy!
Anyway. As I said, the books are set in Belgium: Silent Saturday is set mostly in the area to the south east of Brussels, The Demons of Ghent is (surprise surprise) set in Ghent, and Urban Legends returns to the same area as the first book. This was appealing enough in itself for me, as while there's never any shortage of YA novels set in the UK or US, it's much rarer to come across a book which is actually set in the area you know when that area is in a relatively small and overlooked country such as Belgium. However, I soon realised that there are disadvantages to having familiar streets and landmarks connected with a story of murders and serial killings, which I will get to later.
A quick and not entirely spoiler-less summary: the protagonist is 17-year-old Veerle De Keyser, who lives in an unnamed Flemish village to the south east of Brussels. She goes to school in a bigger town and lives a relatively normal life in a small house with her mother, albeit dominated by the latter's obsessive caution and fear for Veerle's safety at all times - especially as one of Veerle's favourite pastimes is scaling the climbing wall in a nearby town. In the end it is more or less as a direct result of this claustrophobic environment and an unwillingness to return home one evening that Veerle, on the way back from the climbing wall, decides to get off the bus and investigate a light in an abandoned and ramshackle castle she passes every day. There she meets Kris Verstraeten, a boy she knew from her village but who had moved away. But they have a deeper, more horrifying connection: ten years ago on Silent Saturday they climbed up to the top of the church tower in their village to see if the church bells had indeed flown away, and happened to witness the child killer Joren Sterckx on his way into the village, holding his victim (this is described in the first chapter and becomes central to the story). Back in the present day, Kris introduces her to a group of urban explorers, the Koekoeken (or Cuckoos), who break into empty buildings all over Brussels and the surrounding area for the thrill of it. Soon Veerle and Kris are exploring a series of luxuriously opulent houses that stand empty much of the year, doing a little maintenance work in payment for spending time there. Veerle's climbing skills come in extremely handy for scaling the front of buildings, too. But soon they realise something sinister is going on in the heart of the Koekoeken: people are disappearing without a trace and soon bodies start turning up. Kris and Veerle hatch a plan to lure the killer out into the open...
In the second book, Veerle leaves her old life in Vlaams-Brabant behind and goes to live with her father in Ghent. She tries to stay out of trouble but soon enough she is introduced to a whole other side of the city: the sprawling rooftops, a maze of surfaces and heights that prove to be no trouble for Veerle's climbing expertise. But there is something else roaming the rooftops - and when people start falling from great heights, their crumpled bodies found surrounded by salt, Veerle knows there is something dark and dangerous at work.
The idea of the 'demons of Ghent' is central to this book: the legend surrounds the painting 'The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb', by the Van Eyck brothers, and claims that the hundred and seventy people in the painting were painted from real life models, and their punishment for being immortalised in art was that they could never die, except by violence. The demons that roam the rooftops are there to make sure they never get to rest. The way the book revolves around an old legend reminded me a lot of Helen Grant's other books, especially The Glass Demon and meant that for me it didn't have nearly the same impact as the other two books in which the villain is a cold-blooded killing machine stalking his prey for the hell of it and so there is very little of the mystical/mythical quality found in her earlier books. In fact this became particularly apparent, as in all three books the chapters where we see Veerle are interspersed with chapters from the point of view of the villain - namely De Jager (or The Hunter) in books one and three and 'the man who was Death' in book two. To say these chapters are chilling and creepy is an understatement, but De Jager in particular was able to turn my blood cold with the sheer evil that he exuded, in a way that 'the man who was Death' couldn't.
I won't go into the plot of the third book because it's spoiler city for anyone who's read the first. Silent Saturday and Urban Legends are closely connected in terms of storyline and everything else, to the point where I was beginning to question the point of The Demons of Ghent altogether. It's true that you could read Urban Legends without having read The Demons of Ghent, but you could not read it without having read Silent Saturday - or at least not appreciate it. The second book works almost as well as a story on its own than as part of a trilogy, but I have to admit it did allow for some character development and the setting up of a couple of key plot details for the final instalment.
Grant's writing is well-paced and easy to read. In thrillers/crime novels I always look for that moment when all the strands come together to form the bigger picture, and there are plenty of those in the series - often this can be done clumsily, but Grant weaves the strands skilfully, dropping crumbs here and there and leading the story in twists and turns so that the reader can never quite see all the way to the end.
I really loved the characters of Kris and Veerle: they were tangible and had a lot of depth, as well as realistic emotions. This was combined with just the right amount of gusto and bravery in dangerous situations to keep the reader interested, but not enough to dismiss them as ridiculous stupid thrill-seekers. I thought Veerle in particular was courageous and dynamic in the appropriate situations, but equally cautious and reserved when the moment called for that. The whole love triangle thing (first with Kris's ex-girlfriend and then with a boy Veerle meets in Ghent) didn't really do anything for me, but ultimately I realised the relationship between Kris and Veerle is really essential for the final showdown at the end of the third book.
The other thing I loved about these books is the way Grant really captures Belgian culture and the language divide - a difficult feat as it's not as simple as people might think. The descriptions of Ghent and it's stunning old buildings were one thing, but I was impressed with the way the language differences were acknowledged without needing a huge explanation. As this is something I regularly have to explain to people who don't live here, I appreciated this a great deal. I also like that Grant kept the names of towns according to their respective languages: for example Namur keeps the French version, while Ghent and Brussels use the English spelling so as not to confuse the reader. The mentions of British expats were perhaps uncomfortably close to home - but all fair comments, and I enjoyed seeing that mild conflict in a couple of places.
All in all I really enjoyed this series. Except for the fact, of course, that I now automatically associate certain places I've been driving past all my life with the scene of murders and other gruesome deeds. My enthusiasm over finding a series that was set in my adopted country waned ever so slightly when I realised that this is not just your average YA thriller. These books are unflinchingly horrifying in the details you probably wouldn't want to know, so they're definitely not for the faint-hearted or the squeamish - which I would probably consider myself to be, but I survived by sleeping with the lights on. I would really recommend the series to anyone who's ever lived in Belgium (friends, I'm looking at you) and to anyone who just really enjoys a good thriller.