Top positive review
Reviewed in Australia on 5 March 2021
This book is really splitting readers down the middle. It’s criticized for its content, its time-splitting, a lack of simpatico on the part of its lead character-narrator, for its occasional use of bad language and for not being a thriller in the usual sense.
The content is admittedly tough. A Christian couple produce seven children and as time goes on their increasingly paranoid father becomes more and more controlling and cruel. They live in increasing squalor, starved, denied school and eventually chained to their beds. Abigail Dean did a lot of true crime research and the scenario has a lot in common with the Turpin family. Readers have mentioned sexual abuse but apart from one ambiguous incident there’s no evidence of that. It’s all about a power trip by a fanatical man who’s increasingly losing it.
The story does slip-slide between the present and the past and you do have to be on the ball. When the imprisoned mother dies, lawyer daughter Lex is made executor. She travels from her base in New York back home to the UK. The will leaves the house (of horrors) and twenty thousand pounds to the kids. Lex wants to convince the others to turn the place into a multi use community asset. Dean shows great skill in the pacing of her flashbacks, building a picture of a family at first just a little weird and eventually horrifying and of the medical, psychological and legal fallout after the escape. Of course there is also the story of their adoptions, making it through normal school and uni, finding careers, lovers etc. They are very different people and they don’t always get along as their coping mechanisms clash. Their birth order affects their outcomes a lot. Gabriel fares the worst, with sight and possibly dyslexia problems not being picked up and adoptive parents who want to milk him for the publicity as opposed to those who want to disappear from the public eye.
Lex herself is an unsympathetic character for some readers, but... consider the trauma she’s been through and the struggle to be anything like “normal”. What would such an experience do to you? Some people might be put off that - though it’s not dwelt on awfully much - she asks to be hurt during sex. This reminds me of a book by an eminent British Freudian who found in a study on sexual fantasies that in ALL cases, such fantasies derived from earlier trauma: something scary or humiliating. Our minds work in mysterious ways.
Clearly, the book doesn’t aim to be a mystery or a thriller. What it is, is a brilliant psychological study of damaged survival in extraordinary circumstances. The fascination lies in how each person does this, and Dean accomplishes that with a great deal of insight and elan. The ending - yes - is ambiguous and somewhat unsatisfying. By then we’ve been shown that Lex’s recovery is not as certain or complete as she’s led us to believe and the ending reinforces this idea. It’s a terrific book and no surprise that the screen rights have been bought (please god don’t let them turn it into an American story like Girl on a Train). The only thing that worried me was my voyeuristic interest in what is a terrible story. All power to Abigail Dean though. With this book out, a second in the pipeline plus a career as a Google lawyer she must have a very busy, energetic brain.