Told in the alternating voices of Serena and Poppy, The Ice Cream Girls, by British writer Dorothy Koomson, is part suspense novel and part family drama. Koomson expertly weaves the story of two teenaged girls accused of murdering their history teacher, Marcus Halnsley. They’re called ‘the ice cream girls’ because of a photograph of the pair wearing bikinis and eating ice cream. Their story, and their relationship with Halnsley, is anything but sweet, though.
We meet Serena at the moment when her husband, Evan, proposes to her for the second time. We meet Poppy as she leaves prison, where she has been incarcerated for the past twenty years. These are two women, one black and one white, who might have never met if it hadn’t been for Halnsley.
We meet him through Serena first who says that “all the girls said he should be a film star because he was good-looking.” Serena doesn’t really like him at first because he was “always picking on me.” But when Mr. Halnsley starts to take a special interest in her, Serena feels singled out and special. Halnsley convinces her she could excel at History and offers to give her private lessons. It isn’t long before he crosses the line. It’s a simple (although inappropriate gesture) at first, but it’s easy to see how easily Halnsley manipulates fifteen-year-old Serena.
I walked home instead of getting the bus and along the way, I kept reaching up to touch my face. His touch had been so gentle and soft. And the way he said he wanted to take care of me made my stomach tingle upside down every time I ran it through in my head. He wanted to take care of me. That must mean I was special. Someone as clever and grown-up as him thought I was special.
Just a few short weeks after Halnsley has convinced Serena that he loves her, he meets Poppy. It’s clear, of course, that he’s a predator and that both Serena and Poppy are vulnerable despite the fact that they come from decent families. For the next couple of years the girls share the man who alternately abuses them and plays them off against each other – all the while convincing them that he loves them.
The story requires some finesse and Koomson does a terrific job of layering all the bits together. There’s a lot the reader wants to know. Why did Poppy go to prison, for example, and not Serena? Serena went on to college, met and married Evan (a doctor) and now lives in suburban bliss with her two children. Of course, behind the scenes she’s a hot mess. Every night before bed she has to hide all the knives.
The dinner knives are safe but the sharp ones, the ones that can do serious damage, seem to be missing in action. Admittedly, that’s my fault: I hid them last night, and I can’t quite remember where.
Things aren’t much better for adult Poppy, either. She arrives home to her parents only to discover that her father isn’t speaking to her, can’t even look at her and her mother
managed to sit down at the same table as me for more than three seconds. She didn’t make herself a cup of tea, so I knew she wasn’t staying, but it was a start. She actually came into the kitchen and didn’t immediately walk out again.
Poppy is intent on finding Serena and getting her to admit that she is actually responsible for Halnsley’s death and while their reluctant reunion dredges up all sorts of bad memories, it also allows the women to finally have a chance at exorcising the ghost of Halnsley, a man whose hold on them has poisoned their lives long after his death.