The Girls I’ve Been by Tess Sharpe

The Girls I’ve Been is a tense YA novel about a seventeen-year-old ex-con artist who gets stuck in the middle of a bank robbery with her ex-boyfriend and her new girlfriend. For twelve years, Nora had to live a life of deception, as her con artist mother needed her to play the part when tricking criminal men—until her mum felt for one of these men. Then, Nora had to use her skills to escape, and since then, she’s been living as close to a normal life as possible. After a charity event, she meets with new girlfriend Iris ex-boyfriend and now best friend Wes to deposit the money raised, but suddenly, a man pulls a gun, and they’re in the middle of a heist. In such a dangerous situation, can Nora keep all her secrets, even as she puts her skills to the test?

I didn’t know what to expect going into the book, but it turned out to be immediately gripping and multifaceted. On the one hand, it plays out like a classic thriller as Nora tries to outsmart the bank robbers to allow her and her friends to escape, but with constant flashbacks to her past as the many different girls of the title. On another level, it’s a novel that looks at trauma, what makes people who they are, and building your own family, going deeper than you might expect from the blurb. Nora has, expectedly from the concept, had a terrible life in many ways, and has had to try and rebuild things with the help of therapy, her sister, and finding friends. Both Wes and Iris have their own traumatic lives, and Iris especially is given chances to prove her ability to be useful in sticky situations, as well as being a character with a chronic illness (endometriosis).

Surprisingly, the love triangle element is actually much more of a found family situation, with the tension at the start being down to Wes not knowing the two of them were secretly together rather than him pining to have Nora back, and it’s nice to have Nora’s bisexuality acknowledged but not made a big deal of. Due to the mostly very condensed settings of the action in the ‘present’ of the novel (which until near the end is entirely over a few hours during the robbery), it may seem like a lot of information comes out at once, but it suits the genre, and in general the book feels like it looks beyond the action and thriller elements to actually consider the impact of things like Nora’s childhood and some of the pace of revealing secrets during the heist.

Engrossing, sharp, and readable, The Girls I’ve Been was refreshing and more complex than expected, combining the enjoyable larger than life elements of a thriller (like quite how good at cons Nora is) with a look at the trauma of being a child crime prodigy type figure that has horrific things happen to them and that they have to do. It’s certainly for the upper end of the young adult age group (and plenty of adults too), and it’ll be interesting to see the film that’s being made of it, because the book really drew me in.

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