Recent headlines remind us of the tragic consequences of bullying. Mean girls have tormented other girls for generations. (Ditto boys.) Myla Goldberg's intriguing new novel adds a retrospective twist to the problem. The False Friend is about a woman who heads back to her hometown to confess to perpetrating and then covering up a crime against another girl when they were both eleven.
Goldberg, author of the 2000 bestseller Bee Season, begins her story with a blast of memory. Celia sees a red VW bug and imagines she hears the familiar, long-forgotten voice of her childhood best friend Djuna. In memory she is transported back to age eleven, when, after a raging argument, the two of them led their clique of five girls in a forbidden walk home through the woods in upstate New York. In an episode Celia's memory has blanked out until this moment, she recalls seeing Djuna fall into a hole, and leaving her there, telling no one.
Overnight, the adult Celia takes leave from work, confesses to her long-time boyfriend home in Chicago, and flies back to her parents to tell them of her role in this horrific childhood tragedy. She also plans to tell the police, the clique's three surviving friends and Djuna's mother, if she can find them.
Goldberg paces Celia's weeklong search for optimum suspense. As Celia confronts each person, from her mother on, no one remembers what happened the way she does. In a series of chilling scenes, Celia gradually realizes that the mysterious workings of her memory also covered up behavior that left lasting scars on the circle of friends she and Djuna terrorized, all behind the screen of being "good girls."
Goldberg's exploration of the treacherous aspects of childhood and of memory add a moral dimension to The False Friend. Her biggest accomplishment is showing us how Celia gradually faces up to a younger self she doesn't know.