Fiction – paperback; Harper Collins; 205 pages; 2022.
The dark side of competitive gymnastics is explored in this fast-paced story by Ilaria Bernardini, an Italian novelist who writes in English.
The Girls Are Good is narrated by Martina, a teenage girl taking part in an elite international competition being held in Romania, whose cynical voice acts as a form of armour.
She’s the least accomplished of the girls in her team and comes from a much poorer background; there’s the constant feeling that she’s not good enough and never will be, and yet, as the reader comes to discover a little later on, she’s been brave enough to speak out about the abuses happening in her squad.
That abuse is sexual and, initially, is only hinted at:
[As gymnasts] Our body is our most precious possession. That’s why we live and travel with a physio. And that’s why we have daily sessions with him. In theory, the sessions are there to protect our most precious possession. In reality, it’s in there that it all gets broken.
Martina explains how the girls are in a constant battle against puberty; that to achieve success in the sport their bodies must remain small and undeveloped. They can control some of this through diet — they are all anorexic to some degree — but they can’t stop themselves from getting tall or developing breasts.
She-who-puts-on-weight is done for. She-who-grows-tall is done for. She-who-grows-boobs, done for, unless she can endure very tight wrapping.
To help her cope, Martina has little rituals — or obsessive-compulsive tics — that she carries out. She taps things twice and pulls the zipper of her jacket up and down ten times in a row, all in a bid to achieve success.
Maybe we are all a bit obsessive […] and in the end we usually all turn a blind eye to each other’s monsters and manias and we’ll pretty much take any spell that we think will make us win and not die.
During the trip, Martina is forced to share a room with Carla and Nadia, the two best (and meanest) gymnasts in the squad who have an almost claustrophobic symbiotic relationship going on. They share a bed and are so close, physically and mentally, that they shut everyone else out, increasing Martina’s sense of isolation and “otherness” even more.
The story is structured over the seven days of competition — from Monday to Sunday — and is set up in the style of a literary thriller.
The page-turning danger comes in many different forms, including the risk of death from an accident on the high beams or pommel horse and the ongoing sexualisation and pedophilia that exists in the sport. But it actually ends in the grisly murder of a rival competitor.
While the premise is intriguing (it’s what drew me to the book in the first place), I found the ending a bit of a let down. What I did like was the voice of the narrator — cynical, matter-of-fact, free from sentimentality or any emotion at all — and the insider’s look at the brutal side of a sport that looks beautiful from the outside.
The Girls Are Good is about the pursuit of perfection and the risks that come with it. It’s about the destructive force of obsessive friendships and the ways in which girls can be silenced by those supposedly responsible for their care.
It’s not a pretty story. The near total absence of adults in this book and the claustrophobic and cruel world presented, with its deep-seated “traditions” and acceptance of immoral or questionable behaviour, is both shocking and stomach-churning.
There is absolutely no sense of redemption.
Apparently, the book has been optioned by Indigo productions along with All 3Media (the company behind Fleabag) for an eight-part TV series.