I was so pleased to win this last week (and thank you Wardini Books, I’m sure you give donations all the time for fundraisers, and I want you to know this one ended up in appreciative hands). Charity Norman lives up the road. She’s quite famous but I’ve never read her before. Where have I been? This was great.
Some books are page-turners because of the writing, some for the plot or the characters, and some books just have a magic hook that drags you through the night (just one more chapter, just one more) because you are in so deep you just have to know how it ends. Arrggh! I put my life on hold while I gripped this book in my clammy hands.
How was a sensible person like me manipulated into what can only be called compulsive reading? Well, this is the story of a cult and there’s a blindingly obvious parallel. She got me. It starts with a nice English girl who goes on a gap year to New Zealand with her boyfriend. That means all the usual: petty squabbles, hitch-hiking in the rain, in this case a queasy morning feeling and a relationship that might be nearing the end. I wasn’t compulsively reading at this stage, although Norman throws in a couple of blunt pointers:
“It doesn’t look like a scene of death.”
That’s not a spoiler, that’s the first line. Page twelve follows with step one of “The Cult Leader’s Manual: Eight steps to Mind Control,” which discusses whether to target the young and vulnerable, or those with useful skills. “Look for someone who is out of their comfort zone and offer them comfort,” it suggests. Girls on your gap year, beware.
But our hero, Cassy, is a sensible girl from a loving family and she gets offered a lift in a warm van with some harmless-looking hippies and off she goes, discarding the boyfriend on the side of the road. Seems like a good move to me. And no harm in staying on in their alternative-living village for a few days. It’s on an island in Lake Tarawera, miles from anywhere looking across the water to the mountain. In the real world there is no island, but I kayaked across the lake years ago (I think there is a track now) to the most beautifully remote campsite where thermal streams run through the native bush and hit the cold lake in a boil of misty steam. This is where Cassy is, only in the story there is a great bunch of people living there, making and selling crafts, running perma-culture courses, following a kinder way of living without trappings of possessions and the addictive beeps of technology.
As a reader I knew this was going to get sinister (or it wouldn’t be a story) but I found it hard to pinpoint when Cassy should have known to get out. Things are so laid back in New Zealand. Life runs at a slower pace. So, there are bells for meals and communal living and calls to prayer. Cassy is an atheist and not into the God stuff, although their God seems a sensible one; not so much fire and brimstone but inclusive, caring and supportive. No one pushes her into anything and she stays a while to catch her breath and hopes the “morning sickness” isn’t.
Justin, the charismatic, gentle leader, is understanding and non-judgemental. He’s Justin Calvin (JC, geddit?). Like everything else in this book, the surface is compelling and you walk into the depths slowly, once you’re comfortable with the temperature.
I’ll leave you there.
I’d recommend this one on a long haul flight: if you’re doing the 36 hour budget to London with stopovers in sleeping airports, this will shut you up. Just be careful who picks you up at the other end.