There are many words I could use to describe this read from Amy Engel. Atmospheric. Claustrophobic. Creepy. Whether these were intentional on Engel’s part or not, the story of a family of women in rural, remote Kansas will elicit some strong emotion. I will be honest from the beginning, if you are sensitive to violence against women or difficult family situations, you should think twice about reading this book.
Here’s the short summary. The book is told from two points in one character’s timeline, Lane Roanoke. We meet Lane when she is just 15 years-old and left alone, upon the death of her mother, in New York City. The story jumps between this young Lane and an older, wiser Lane ten years later. At the center of both stories, though, is Roanoke; the family farm and home in the middle of nowhere Kansas. Throughout the tale, we are introduced to a cast of characters. At Roanoke, we meet Lane’s grandparents and manic depressive cousin, Allegra. There is also a farmhand and maid who, as we learn, have a long history with the family and the house. Then there are the townies from the nearby Osage Flats, KS, and include two boys who become wrapped up in Allegra and Lane’s tumultuous story. Finally, there are the past girls of the Roanoke family tree. They haunt the story and we meet each in a short chapter that reveals they side of the story.
Whew! That’s a lot. And I haven’t even gotten to the real plot of Lane’s two timelines. At the center of this whole novel is the disappearance of Allegra in the present story. Lane returns to Roanoke, and all of its secrets, to find her troubled cousin. There she faces all of the secrets she learned about the summer she arrived when she was 15, which are slowly revealed to us. Lane refuses to leave until she finds Allegra and ensures she takes care of her cousin, unlike the summer so long ago.
The real magic of this book is the slow build of tension as Engel peels back the layers of all the characters. While the jumping timeline can be a bit disorienting at first, it begins to make sense as the various timelines build on each other. The other thing that is building for the reader is dread. That’s a strong word, but I think appropriate for this book. Engel was able to elicit a slow sense of dread for me, even as I would walk away from the book for mundane things like sleep or work. That dread hung over me every time I sat down and opened up the book to continue reading.
While some of the characters seemed to be caricatures of themselves, the biggest example was a larger-than-life Allegra; others were well developed over the chapters. In the end, the biggest issue I had was understanding some of the motivations for some key figures, but I gave benefit of the doubt because I’m not sure how I would behave in some of the situations Engel created for them.
I congratulate Engel for creating a book of such deeply flawed characters that still manage to gain my empathy. Lane is not easy to love, but when you see the trauma of her life, all you really want for her is to find some peace and, if not happiness, contentment in life.
Thank you to the publisher and NetGalley for allowing me to read an ARC of this book for a fair and honest review.