The best-selling novelist Rebecca Godfrey wrote a definitive account of the brutal beating death of a Victoria teenager by high school classmates.
Ms. Godfrey immersed herself in the world of the teens from suburban Victoria. They had beaten 14-year-old Reena Virk before knocking her unconscious and leaving her to drown in a saltwater inlet. The author, who spent her own teen years in the city, captured the nuances of seemingly inexplicable teen behaviour by Reena’s tormentors.
Under the Bridge, which was released in 2005 and reissued three years ago, is a riveting, informative and compassionate account of a shocking crime.
“I wanted to very carefully portray the lives of the teenagers, and the victim Reena, before the crime, so the reader could see them not as case studies but as people, with lives that were once so innocent and normal,” she said in a published conversation with the American author Leslie Jamison.
The book won the $25,000 British Columbia Award for Canadian Nonfiction. An eight-episode limited series based on it is currently being adapted by Hulu.
Ms. Godfrey, who has died at 54, four years after receiving a cancer diagnosis, taught writing at Columbia University in New York. During her illness, she continued working on a novel based on the early life of Peggy Guggenheim, the art collector, including her affair with Samuel Beckett in Paris. The book, tentatively titled The Dilettante, is forthcoming from Knopf.
While covering the trials of the accused teens, the petite writer was on occasion treated with disdain by hard-boiled police reporters and threatened with violence by the families. With a pixie nose centred between wide eyes, a curtain of hair shading an eye and curling under the chin, she so resembled the actor Jodie Foster that “when the Silence of the Lambs came out,” she told Neal Hall of the Vancouver Sun, “everybody started calling me Clarice.”
She was the daughter of Canadian literary royalty, as her mother is a noted writer of mystery fiction and her father won a prestigious Governor General’s Award for his first novel, while also launching three book publishing houses over a seven-year period.
Rebecca Margot Godfrey was born in Toronto on Dec. 2, 1967, to the former Ellen Swartz and William David Godfrey, aspiring writers who met in California at a reception for newly arrived students at Stanford University. Rebecca was the only girl and the middle of three children born to the couple.
As an infant, she grew up on the upper floors of a rental house at 671 Spadina Ave., known as The Birdcage, near the University of Toronto campus. Her father and the poet Dennis Lee launched the House of Anansi publishers in the low-ceilinged basement. The Godfrey home was a waystation for musicians, draft dodgers and the assorted wandering characters who represented the restless spirit of the times.
A brief move to Mississauga (“a failed exercise in suburban living,” Ms. Godfrey once said) was followed by a move to rural Erin, about 80 kilometres northwest of Toronto. The family grew wheat, raised cattle and started Press Porcépic, a third publishing house to follow Anansi and the New Press.
The Godfreys moved to Vancouver Island in 1977 when Dave Godfrey was named head of the creative-writing department at the University of Victoria.
Ms. Godfrey attended Mount Douglas Secondary, known locally as Mount Doug, which she rendered as Mount Drug in her debut novel, The Torn Skirt, which was a national bestseller and a finalist for the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize. The novel, published in 2001, is a raw account of a teen girl’s week-long descent in Victoria’s downtown Red Zone, exposing the sordid underbelly of a city that for decades marketed itself to tourists as a twee attraction of gardens and High Tea.
The author went through a Goth phase during her own teen years, wearing black clothes, cropped hair and abundant eyeliner. She felt her suburban high school emphasized sports over academics. The school’s alumni include the music producer David Foster and filmmaker Atom Egoyan, though not long after her own graduation three male students were convicted of the bloody stabbing and beating deaths of the mother and grandmother of one of them.
After studying at the University of Toronto, she took creative writing at Sarah Lawrence College in Yonkers, north of New York, earning a master’s degree in fine arts. While living in the city, she freelanced articles to several publications, including The Globe and Mail, while also writing for television and reading movie scripts for a production house.
She first learned of the Virk murder in an article in the New York Times. She returned to Vancouver Island to visit some of the accused girls in a youth detention centre. They seemed familiar figures to her, regular girls much like those with whom she had gone to school, not cold-blooded killers.
Ms. Godfrey, a resident of Red Hook, N.Y., died on Oct. 3. She leaves a husband, Herb Wilson; a daughter, Ada; a younger brother, Samuel; and her mother, Ellen Godfrey.
She was predeceased by her father, who died at age 76 in 2015, and by an older brother, Jonathan Clifford Godfrey, who died at age 16 in 1981 after accidentally falling 23 metres down a coastal bluff near the family home in suburban Saanich. Like the victim of her true-crime book, his body was found in the water.
She was only 13 at the time. “I remember a reporter knocking on the door and asking me, ‘Did you know the boy who died?’” she told Ms. Jamison. “It was just unbelievably horrible.”
The tragedy informed her approach to the more than 300 interviews she conducted for Under the Bridge.
“I didn’t want to be that intrusive or voyeuristic, so I was quite tentative by journalistic standards. I took a long time. I remember being in my car, pulling over to the side of the road with panic attacks while I was on my way to interview people.”