The Gosling Girl is a powerful and compelling story of survival and rebuilding your identity from dual-heritage author, JACQUELINE ROY.
As AKINA HANSEN writes, it looks at the psychological aftermath of committing a crime as a child and the systems which in turn perpetuate cycles of abuse and trauma.
In 1993 10-year-old Jon Venables and Robert Thompson abducted and brutally murdered two-year-old James Bulger sending shockwaves across Britain. The two boys were tried in adult court and found guilty – making them the youngest convicted murderers in modern British history.
Controversially their identities were revealed despite being children and, as a consequence when they were released from prison in 2001, they were given new identities which have subsequently been leaked.
The Gosling Girl is loosely based on these events and looks at the psychological aftermath of committing a heinous crime in childhood and the consequences following release due to a lack of anonymity.
‘It seems to me that it raised some really interesting questions about identity, and how identities are formed, and also how culpable we are when we’re so young. And one of the things that I’ve thought about a lot was that 10-year-old children don’t really understand consequences in the same way as adults. So to try those children as adults, it just seemed bizarre,’ Jacqueline says.
The novel follows Michelle Cameron – a young mixed race black woman – as she reintegrates into society after being released from a young offender’s institute after serving her time for committing a harrowing crime as a child. The novel explores the systemic nature of racism by looking at Michelle’s fraught experience with the judicial system, media and society at large.
Jacqueline was born in London in the 1950s to a Jamaican father who was one of the earliest migrants of that generation to settle in Britain. From an early age, she was interested in exploring the nuances of racial identity, particularly the experiences of mixed-race people.
‘Interracial relationships at that time were really unusual. So I was brought up in an environment where there were very few people like me. And I remember being on a bus one day, and I must have been about six, possibly seven, but certainly no older than that. A woman of dual heritage, white and black heritage, got onto the bus and I remember being absolutely fascinated by her because I’d never seen a dual-heritage adult before.’
Jacqueline is the author of six children’s books and the novel The Fat Lady Sings which all feature mixed-raced protagonists. Growing up, she was an avid reader.
‘It’d be three or four books a week from the library, which very conveniently was at the end of my street, I practically lived there.’ Yet she explains, ‘When I was growing up, I just couldn’t find anybody who looked like me. There was nobody with my sorts of experiences in fiction.
‘Black experiences, full stop, were absent in British writing,’ she tells me.
This absence was one of Jacqueline’s biggest motivations she had for writing and putting black characters into books.
Throughout The Gosling Girl Jacqueline explores the nuances of racial identity through Michelle and the media coverage of her crime, which is implicitly racist as it describes her blackness and her crime interchangeably.
It’s pertinent to point out how we see this mirrored in real life – media campaigns that lay the blame on immigrant and black communities. Jaqueline suggests that even Brexit was: ‘very much the result of a lot of media campaigning really around the issue that was telling people that immigrants and immigration were the problem, you know, whether it was Eastern Europeans, black, or South Asian immigrants, it had a massive effect. And I think it also licensed people here to start voicing some very problematic views that I haven’t heard for a very long time.’
Over the course of the novel Jacqueline explores the intersectionality of race and class as Michelle’s story is controlled and exploited by people around her – from a white psychologist, Zoe Laing, who wants to write a book on her, through to the media, and even the police.
When her troubled friend Lucy is found dead, Michelle immediately becomes a suspect and in turn we see the prejudicial treatment she receives from the system. Her details are ultimately leaked to the press, and the novel follows Michelle as she attempts to rebuild her life again.
Importantly the book’s intention is not to dismiss the ‘pain of the victim’s family’, as these crimes are definitively harrowing. But it highlights the various social, economic, and cultural factors that ultimately perpetuate a cycle of trauma and abuse.
‘I didn’t want to exonerate Michelle, and kind of pretend that it was somehow over in any way. That seemed very important. But at the same time, I wanted to look at the way society behaves towards certain types of people. And in the novel, that’s absolutely compounded by racism.’
Ultimately the novel raises various ethical issues and prompts the reader to question the world around them: ‘the job of the novel in many respects was to raise questions, rather than necessarily providing any sorts of answers,’ she tells me.
The Gosling Girl is a compelling and moving story about rebuilding one’s identity and survival.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
She rediscovered a love of learning in her thirties after undertaking a Bachelors in English, and a Masters in Postcolonial Literatures. She then became a lecturer in English, specialising in Black Literature and Culture and Creative Writing at Manchester Metropolitan University, where she worked full time for many years, and was a tutor on The Manchester Writing School’s M.A. programme. She has written six books for children, and edited her late father’s novel No Black Sparrows, published posthumously. A second novel for adults will be published in 2022. She now lives in Manchester.