Amy Engel makes her debut as a writer of adult fiction with this title, having begun her career writing fiction for young adults. The Roanoke Girls is smoking hot, a barn burner of a book, diving into some of society’s deepest taboos and yanking them from the shadows into the bright rays of Kansas sunshine, where the story is set, for us to have a look at them. It’s not available to the public until March 7, 2017, and frankly I don’t know how you are going to wait that long. I received a DRC for this title from Net Galley and Crown Publishing for the purpose of a review.
Lane grows up in New York City, raised by a mother that shows no sign of warmth or affection, a woman that seems to either cry or sleepwalk through most hours of most days. When she hangs herself, Lane bitterly wonders what took her so long. But then a surprise comes with the social worker assigned to her case. It seems there are grandparents in Kansas, who not only are willing to have Lane, but that actually want her.
Soon Lane finds herself being driven up the private drive to Roanoke, the family manse, a rambling, welcoming hodgepodge of a house, complete with a same-age cousin waving with manic joy from the front porch. Allegra is spoiled, and now Lane will have all the same luxuries. The ostensible farm on which they live is more of a gentleman’s farm, as it happens; the real money comes from oil. And so Lane, who has scraped for every scrap of clothing and food alongside her struggling mother for 16 years, suddenly has the whole world at her beck and call. Allegra takes her to their grandfather’s study and shows her where all the credit cards are kept, and she assures her this is not something they are sneaking or stealing; it is assumed that if they want something, they can buy it.
It seems almost too good to be true…and it is.
There is so much simmering just below the surface, unspoken but thick and almost tangible. Take, for example, the portraits of the Roanoke girls that have gone before them, whose photographs line a main hallway. The collection begins with Grandfather’s sisters, continues with their daughters, the mothers and aunts of Lane and Allegra. What has become of all of them? Allegra explains:
“Roanoke girls never last long around here…In the end, we either run or we die.”
Lane’s picture isn’t included among those in the hallway, and she isn’t sure she wants it there. And as time goes by and the contours of the family’s pathology become clearer, Lane decides it’s time to save herself, and she hits the road, covering her tracks to the best of her ability. She stays away until ten years later, when her phone rings. Her grandfather tells her that Allegra has vanished; they need Lane to “come home” to help the family search for her.
Lane’s interaction with her grandfather is mesmerizing. When he calls her with the news of Allegra’s disappearance, the first thing she asks is how he got her number. Yet once she is back in the Roanoke house, she recognizes that
“…behind the secrets and the horrible truth, under the shame and anger that beat like a heart, there still lives a terrible kind of love.”
The fascinating, intimate narrative Engel weaves is a thing that can’t be taught. There’s no degree, no series of workshops that gives a voice such clear authority. She plays out the story’s thread in careful increments, and the bone-c hilling tone is heightened rather than lessened by the fact that we have a very good idea of exactly what happened to Allegra. I know whodunit halfway through the book, but it doesn’t matter. The author binds me to Lane’s story in a way that is completely undeniable, and I have to see this thing through with her. Toward the end of the book, instead of commenting to myself about aspects of the book or particularly compelling passages to quote, I’m engaging with the text itself. More than once my notebook simply says, “No.”
The reader should know that there are triggers all over the place. Those that are in a sensitive place may want to have someone else read the book first and tell you whether they recommend it to you. But for those that want a chiller of a mystery, and for those that care about women and the ways that society turns people into products for consumption, this is a must read. Or you could just read it because it’s brilliant, and no one else is writing anything like it.