Thursday, June 20, 2013

Anxiety, Imprisonment, and THE NEVER LIST

It was little more than a month ago that three women were rescued from  a Cleveland, Ohio home, where they had been held for years against their will and where they were beaten, raped, and restrained in a dungeon-like basement. Koethi Zan's new thriller THE NEVER LIST has eerie parallels to that story, since it tells the tale of a woman who was held in similar captivity for three years, along with two other women.

The narrator of THE NEVER LIST is one of the captives, and she begins her tale by saying "There were four of us down there for the first thirty-two months and eleven days of our captivity."

Perhaps the most frightening thing about this book is that it doesn't even necessarily seem like fiction.  Several high-profile rescues in the last ten years (notably two in Austria and two in California) involved similar kidnappings and imprisonments of women, sometimes for many years.  One of the Austrian women,  Elisabeth Fritzl, was imprisoned (by her own father) when she was eighteen and was only freed twenty-four years later, after giving birth to seven children sired by her father and suffering repeated abuse by him.

THE NEVER LIST, to my relief, does not so much detail the abuse that the prisoners received as it does examine the psychology of imprisonment--not only the motivation of the captor, but the many repercussions, physical and psychological, created by the loss of freedom.

The book's title emerges as a central irony of the novel--the narrator, Sarah, and her best friend, Jennifer, survive a car crash when they are young, after which, in their anxiety, they try to manage their lives by preventing any possible tragedies.  They do this by creating THE NEVER LIST--what never to do if one wants to stay safe. Never walk alone, never trust a stranger, never park far from your destination, etc. When Jennifer and Sarah eventually become captives, Sarah is faced with the bitter truth: victimization is not necessarily something one can avoid by being vigilant.

Indeed, the notion of victimization is explored at length in this novel, in an interesting and compelling way.  While I didn't always predict the direction that the novel would go and I found at least one event utterly unbelievable, I must admit that I read this book practically in one sitting, and it was truly compulsive reading.

Zan's premise is fascinating not only because she takes us inside the mind of one who has endured horror, but because she examines the reality of anxiety in teenagers. Recent studies have suggested that both anxiety and depression have increased at a rapid rate in young people, and I thought of that when I read Sarah's account of the time she spent with her teenage friend chronicling all possible disasters that could befall them and then making plans to avoid them. Their anxiety created a sort of agoraphobic avoidance, an imprisonment-before-their-imprisonment.

Sarah's narrative voice is compelling and heartbreaking, and her life after captivity makes the reader root for her even while they acknowledge that she can never be the same.

An interesting and sobering read.