Kate, a high-powered lawyer and single parent, gets a phone call during an important meeting from her daughter’s school asking for her daughter to be collected. Kate doesn’t believe the reason given and thinks the exclusion can be reversed once she’s got Amelia’s side of the story. As she arrives at the school, she sees the ambulance and fire truck parked in the grounds and a police cordon. Once the police establish who she is, Kate is allowed through where she learns that Amelia has fallen from the roof. A note saying simply “sorry” was left behind, indicating suicide. The lead investigator treats it as an open and shut case.
However, in her heart, Kate doesn’t believe her daughter would commit suicide, but the aftermath leaves her fogged in bereavement. When she dusts herself off and returns to work, she receives a text saying that Amelia didn’t jump from a blocked number. The law firm partner she works for insists the police become involved again and that their IT department try and establish if they can trace who the blocked number is. Kate learns that the original lead investigator has left the force and joined a private security firm owned by the stepfather of one of the girls in Amelia’s year at school. This point is not insignificant as the new lead investigator discovers the original investigate did a less than thorough job.
Encouraged by the text confirming her instincts, Kate turns detective to find out what Amelia was doing in the months before her death. She finally gets sight of the message supposedly left by Amelia and sees that it’s not her daughter’s handwriting. She begins to wonder what else has been hidden from her. With the help of the IT department at the law firm she works for, she gets print-outs of Amelia’s text messages, social media status updates and the school’s gossip blog written anonymously and largely repeating hearsay about who is sleeping with whom. There’s a series of texts between Amelia and best friend Sylvia, another series between Amelia and a Ben whom Kate doesn’t know and a series between Amelia and Dylan whom Kate doesn’t know either. The texts between Dylan and Ben occasionally reference the Maggies, sometimes given numbers, Maggie #1, Maggie #2, etc. In addition there are more blocked sender texts: one group explicitly suggesting Amelia and Dylan were having an affair and another group pestering Amelia about who her father was. Kate also uncovers some texts from the headmaster, asking Amelia to think about something and talk to him. She discovers the headmaster was aware of secret clubs operating in the school but unable to stop the clubs as the school board, led by Adele, the mother of the girl whose stepfather owns the private security firm the original investigator joined, strictly upheld a ‘don’t ask’ policy. This was on the basis that if the school staff didn’t know about the secret clubs, they and the school couldn’t be held liable for the behaviour of club members. The headmaster had protested but was threatened with dismissal and a costly lawsuit for breach of contract if he did anything (a clause in his contract permitting this). He does however provide Kate with copies of the minutes of the school board where the secret clubs were discussed and the policy brought in. He was hoping Amelia would reveal who the secret club members were as he suspected the changes in Amelia’s behaviour were linked to her knowing something.
Kate’s detective work is interspersed with Amelia’s story. Amelia’s tapped to join a secret club at her school, which surprises her as she’s an untrendy book nerd. She’s even more surprised when she finds that the girl who asked her to join is the same girl who behaves as if she hates her. There are three secret clubs and she becomes aware that her best friend’s boyfriend has joined another. When Sylvia suspects her boyfriend of cheating, Amelia can’t explain that he’s doing various dares and tasks his club has given him. On behalf of the secret club she carries out various pranks, allows photographs, taken by Sylvia’s boyfriend as one of his club tasks, of her in her underwear to be posted on a blog and suffers being on the end of some malicious gossip. Unfortunately her relationship with Dylan is not liked by the girl who hates her and Amelia finds she’s made an enemy. Her worst moment comes when she’s submitted a paper and becomes accused of plagiarism. The papers are submitted via email and printed off by a student assistant before being assessed by a teacher. The student assistant was a member of the secret club and Amelia suspects she switched papers because the plagiarised paper wasn’t the one she submitted. This is the basis for the threatened exclusion.
However, some of the blocked number texts Amelia is receiving reveal that someone is very interested in who her father is. Amelia’s already decided she’s not bothered as her father couldn’t have been worth knowing if her mother didn’t want him in their lives. Kate had always told Amelia her father was a man she met in a bar who was on his way to carry out relief work for a charity in Africa. Kate had met such a person, but not had an affair with him. Amelia’s father is actually one of two lawyers she was seeing at the time, neither of whom Kate regarded as father material. One was married the other is an ambitious narcissist. But one of them did have Waardenburg syndrome, a genetic condition, not present in Kate’s family. Symptoms of Waardenburg syndrome, relevant to the novel, include differently coloured eyes, which Amelia has, prematurely grey hair or hair with a distinctive patch of grey.
It’s a complex plot, expertly handled. Kate is credible and sympathetic as a distressed mother determined her make her daughter’s life count for something, even if it’s only to stop the secret clubs and the bullying that results. Amelia’s credible as a teenaged outsider, drawn into and then alienated from a gang of schoolgirls controlled by their leader who, in turn, is heavily influenced by her parent. Amelia’s friends are recognisably self-absorbed teenagers, concerned about their status and reputations amongst peers yet still capable of loyalty, friendship and forgiveness. In many respects they’re better behaved than some of the adults. The pacing is right. Switching between Kate and Amelia is naturally handled, not regimented into alternative chapters, and easy to follow as both have distinctive voices.
Ultimately though “Reconstructing Amelia” doesn’t moralise: it asks questions about peer pressure, loyalty, keeping secrets and how far someone might go to keep a reputation or status for both teenagers and adults. Kate seems oblivious to the fact that denying her daughter’s father has an impact. She’s quick to write-off Amelia’s father as a sperm donor and it doesn’t occur to her that her daughter’s visible and rare genetic condition might lead the father to recognise his own child. Keeping Amelia ignorant does her no favours. It’s fair to say the two most likeable characters in the book are the two that don’t keep secrets (until forced to) and resent being manipulated, even though one of them is easy to hate at first.
By Emma Lee