How was it possible to vanish into thin air on a street where everyone knew your business? Vanishing was the province of lonely parks, factory streets, and rooftops. Vanishing happened to the white sorority girls over at St. John’s that partied too damn much. On Amity Lane, good people were always claimed, never discarded like garbage or old clothes.
this novel takes the basic details of the ariel castro kidnappings and transplants the crime from cleveland to queens (tyvm, i say, reading this here in my own queens neighborhood—which is name-dropped in the book, although it is not the scene of the crime), in which three young girls: gwin, fern and jesenia, are kidnapped and held captive for a decade by someone they refer to as “boss man.”
it is a fast book, but i would not say it’s an easy read. the chapters are very short; many of them less than a page, and it switches POV on a dime, jumps around in time, eschews quotation marks altogether, and ranges stylistically from traditional narrative structure (exposition/dialogue/yadda), to interviews, articles, stream-of-consciousness/out-of-body sequences, dreams, sentence fragments, lists, poems, incantations, photographs, etc etc.
i’m a fan of innovative structural choices, but i found this one to be convoluted and unfocused and extremely confusing. i admire ferrell’s confidence in bursting onto the literary stage with such an unusual debut, but it was incredibly difficult to follow.
i’m not sure of the structure was meant to distance the reader from the horror of the scenario—an emotional cushion to keep the reader somewhat removed from the story of girls being raped and abused, but while the subject matter is brutal, the writing about it is only occasionally graphic, more often recounted in a tone reflecting the dazed vagueness of one of the victims:
We asked these things in our minds until Boss Man woke up, did his thing to our innards and outtards, left the house in darkness.
or its reverse, buried in figurative and deflecting language:
What is a non-born? Let me count the ways.
Each time one set in me—like that old junket pudding Bud used to make when we ran out of food—Boss Man’d get mad and kick me down some serious basement stairs. Or else throw me on the rope. Squeeze my neck in such a love-hold that the tissue-issue came trickling out the other end like a stream.
i’ve explained before that i have an inability to emotionally engage with books or movies and i got zero triggers, so it might be down to that, but i’ve read so much worse in terms of graphic content, and half the time here i didn’t even know what was going on, so that probably didn’t help with my engagement.
more than being shocked or unsettled, this book left me feeling bewildered, and i’ve been delaying this review for so long, not knowing where to even start, so i did something i
never rarely do before writing a review, and sought out other reviews, to see how folks were responding to this book. interestingly enough, the critical response of the pros has been laudatory, while goodreaders have been less enthusiastic.
i read several of these positive reviews to get a sense of what they were getting out of it that i wasn’t and came upon one in the san diego union-tribune featuring an interview with the author who was quoted re: her style choices—
“The linear narrative did not encompass the fullness of the girls’ story. It was a story of the family, of the community, the people who let the girls down…For me, it was like a mosaic almost—you have these shattered pieces and how are the girls putting it together and how is the outside world putting it together. So fragmentation really became the narrative strategy for me and playing around with time.”
so i understand and appreciate what she was aiming for, and i think the “outside” perspective was necessary—it’s unlikely any of us can truly relate to the experiences of the kidnapped girls, and it’s even more chilling to identify with miss metropolitan—passing a house of horrors every day and suspecting nothing, even attempting to befriend boss man, with no idea of what her neighbor truly is. but for me—a regular-reader-person who only occasionally reviews books for $$—the execution fell a bit short.
i didn’t hate it; in fact, when it stayed still long enough for me to sink into the prose, there was some really strong writing, even in the gauzy, dreamlike parts. the fairytale elements that crept in, as the girls escaped the horror of their reality in fantasy and imagination, were also effective, although for me, the very underread Gretel and the Dark is a better example of this conceit
from the same article:
Ferrell doesn’t hold back when it comes to the grotesque details of the assaults, but maintains that this isn’t for shock value, but rather to “help define the girls.”
“I thought about that a lot,” says Ferrell, when asked about how she found that balance between realism and graphicness. “In fact, there are some sections that I had to take out. I didn’t want the reader to focus on the scariness; I wanted them to think about the story. I think things can be a lot more scary when you withhold things.”
again, the ‘grotesque details” didn’t really register with me, so i think she withheld too much, and although i’m not at all a fan of the torture-porn variety of horror, i think a somewhat more detailed and straightforward chronicle would have been more effective—between the micro-chapters and the jarring scene-changes, it was hard to stay invested in the story, or even identify the story.
still, a very brave debut that plenty of people responded to more meaningfully than i did.