1250 Ghost girls & glow-in-the-dark
by Sofi Papamarko
Hamilton, ON: Wolsak & Wynn, 2021
$20.00 / 9781989496268
Reviewed by Myshara Herbert-McMyn
Sofi Papamarko’s Radium Girl is a striking collection of stories that will widen your perspective and haunt your thoughts. Every story contains rich characters that demand your attention and make you listen to them. The loneliness of conjoined twins in “Margie and Lu,” Elda and her relationship with Undark in “Radium Girl,” and the children of a strict father in “Something to Cry About” are examples of these richly characterized people. Each one goes through unimaginable series of events that alter their lives in unexplainable ways. Papamarko’s ability to portray these oddities is extraordinary. Many of these stories became instant favourites of mine because of their ability to tickle my brain and make me question aspects of reality and the way people function. And it amazes me to see how other people’s lives are so incredibly different from my own.
When a nuclear strike is imminent, fear drives people to do what they’ve been told: get to a safe place. In “Something to Cry About,” Marcus’s father hurries him and his family down into the bunker in their basement to stay safe from an impending nuclear strike. Though this story begins as a guide to nuclear attack procedure, Marcus and his sister soon notice the changes that happen in both of their parents. They realize many dangers much more imminent than nuclear winter lurk in such small spaces. The curious nature of this story enthralled me. It’s fascinating to study how people respond to disaster scenarios and Papamarko does a convincing job of having her characters react to the incredible difficulty of living in a bunker.
Elda and the ghost girls glow with otherworldly light whenever they are in the dark. Their job is painting Undark — a radioactive glow-in-the-dark substance — onto the numbers on watch faces. Elda even helps paint another ghost girl with Undark on her wedding day, creating a magical bride who is luminescent from her feet to her teeth. Though every advertisement for Undark says that it’s perfectly safe, the ghost girls are the true test of that falsehood. As the dangers of Undark make themselves known, so too does an impossibly beautiful outcome for Elda. This feels like a beginning for Elda. I couldn’t help but think of the comic books that show superhero origin stories and the amount of hope they bring to the reader. The same hope exists at the end of this story. I fell in love with the wonder of Elda and her potential, and I hope you do too.
Having a twin is an experience that most people don’t get. Fewer still have that twin connected to their body. Being a conjoined twin presents a wealth of difficulties few of us would even consider. These two girls — Margie and Lu — have opposing personalities and conflicting wants despite being literally stuck with one another. Though they want very different things, “Margie and Lu” uses both their points of view to explore themes of loneliness and togetherness and shows brilliantly that these two themes are not exclusive. Both girls also explore the question of what defines normal in distinct ways. I enjoyed reading Lu’s speculation on loneliness the most. She has never been alone because of her sister, and speaks about loneliness as a luxury — something many people wouldn’t consider to be true. I found this insight poetic in a way that made my heart ache for her.
I relished every story in this collection. Each one gave me new perspectives on people in situations I’ll never find myself in and made me consider their points of view and emotions. To me, this broadening of perspective is a fundamental function of literature — and Radium Girl is certainly literature in my mind. I found myself filled with nostalgia for the latter half of the twentieth century, when most of the stories are set. For this reason, I think this collection will also appeal to people who are fascinated with vintage styles and stories.
I will read Radium Girl over and over, hoping to see more details and gain new perspectives from the solid characters that dominate this book. Sofi Papamarko gives their voices a life that matches the tone of the tales perfectly. The best example of this is in “Margie and Lu,” where each point of view is written as if they were speaking. Margie talks like a classic teenager and worries about boys and kissing, whereas Lu speaks with more complex sentences and explores abstract concepts like loneliness. Papamarko’s writing is complex and fascinating. She draws the reader in with each story and leads them along a twisting path past pregnancy, baking competitions, funerals, and many other events — to a truly brilliant finale.
Myshara Herbert-McMyn is a book reviewer and aspiring writer living in the Okanagan. She runs the blog Lit&Leta. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in English and Creative Writing from Thompson Rivers University. Editor’s note: Myshara Herbert-McMyn has also reviewed books by John O’Neill, Christina Myers, Paul Bae, and Ruth Daniell for The Ormsby Review. Previously, with her TRU mentor Ginny Ratsoy, she reviewed books by Roo Phelps and Tim Conley. Myshara lives in Kelowna.
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