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BOOK REVIEW: The Familiar Dark by Amy Engel

| 16 April 2020 | Reply

BOOK REVIEW: The Familiar Dark by Amy Engel

Hodder & Stoughton
March 2020
Paperback, $32.99
Reviewed by Steph O’Connell

Crime / Mystery / Fiction

95% Rocking

From the bestselling author of The Roanoke Girls comes a new novel with the same incredible atmosphere, strong sense of place and dark heart. The Familiar Dark will blow you away.

In a small town beset by poverty in the Missouri Ozarks two 12-year-old girls are found dead in the park. Their throats have been cut.

Eve Taggert’s daughter was one of them. Desperate with grief, she takes it upon herself to find out the truth about what happened to her little girl.

Eve is no stranger to the dark side of life – having been raised by a hard-edged mother whose parenting lessons she tried hard not to mimic. But with her daughter gone, Eve has no reason to stay soft. And she is going to need her mother’s cruel brand of strength if she’s going to face the truth about her daughter’s death. 

In my head, I fell to the floor, mouth twisted and howling. Screamed my throat raw. Ripped out my own hair. Slammed face-first into the linoleum until my nose burst and dark blood flowed. But in reality, I simply turned and grabbed my coat and purse off the hook behind me, catching a single glimpse of Thomas’s shocked face, his mouth open and eyes wide.

Amy Engel’s new book takes you inside the passage of loss and grief, and while that might sound like an awful thing, and you might wonder why someone would choose to read such a thing, you have to take into account the skill of the writer in question. And just how therapeutic it can be for anyone who has ever felt great loss to see those words writ plain, beautiful prose that captures so elegantly the way it felt, the way it was hard to explain.

No one ever tells you about the time you lose. The well-meaning bring food or send flowers. The worried check you for signs you might hurt yourself and squirrel away the pills and guns. The professionals press slick pamphlets into your hands. Lists of support groups and 800 numbers. Signs that prove your grieving is normal. Lack of appetite. Sleeping too much or not at all. Anger. Depression. Hopelessness. But there’s nothing about the way time slips away from you, minutes lost staring at the back of a blond child ahead of you on the sidewalk, seconds ticking past while you stand holding a fresh-from-the-dryer T-shirt that your daughter once wore. Brain blank and empty as a dark room, just her name—Junie Junie Junie—running in an endless loop of longing.

Engel takes the reader through the stages of grief, but also delivers a character who is so well-built, with such a rich and scarred history, that you can’t help but cheer her on, even when she might make decisions you can see are not going to play out well. 

I thought about all the press conferences I’d seen over the years, parents trotted out for missing kids, killed kids, abused kids. Everyone feels sorry for those parents, those mothers, until they don’t. Until the mothers don’t cry enough or cry too much. Until the mothers are too put-together or not put-together enough. Until the mothers are angry. Because that’s the one thing women are never, ever allowed to be. We can be sad, distraught, confused, pleading, forgiving. But not furious. Fury is reserved for other people. The worst thing you can be is an angry woman, an angry mother.
But I was angry and I wasn’t going to pretend otherwise.

Sometimes it’s because of these decisions that you want to cheer her on, because you’d like your chance to do the same.



Personal story time here. 

You may have noticed I haven’t reviewed a lot in the last year (you may not have, and that’s perfectly fine, too, we all have our lives to live). I’ve found it a little hard to lose myself in a book, and to put my thoughts into words when I was able to read.

12.5 months ago I went through a truly horrible situation. My dog was attacked and killed in my front yard by two other dogs as I tried (and failed) desperately to save her. I was certain the dogs were going to turn on me, and I didn’t care, I was ready to murder them for tearing my baby apart. If only I’d had something I could use to defend her with or chase them off. They eventually let her go, looked to me for praise, and I rushed her to the vet. She wasn’t alive by the time we arrived.

Now, I’m not trying to belittle the loss of a human child that any family might have gone through, but she had been with me for ten years, I was planning on another 4-6 years with her (as is standard with the breed), maybe more if I was lucky. She had been with me through changes in jobs, house moves, beginnings and endings of relationships, recovering from a car accident, the death of my Nana, and my decision to cut ties with my mother after a long and emotional battle of wills with her narcissistic tendencies over the decades.

I called my dog “kid” and “baby” when I was talking to her, and after losing so much else, she was all I had. But I felt like I could make it through, so long as I had her during the worst of it. And then she was ripped from me. I was diagnosed with PTSD and adjustment disorder.

I tell you this so that you know where I’m coming from when I say that this book GOT me. Right down to the strained relationship with the mother.

She’d always been good at this, waiting until you’d about given up on her once and for all and then reaching out with a tender hand. It reminded me of the few times she’d read to me as a child, tucked me up against her body on the couch and gave different voices to the characters in the secondhand picture book I’d gotten for Christmas. Once, she even made me a mug of hot chocolate to sip while she read. Her rare affection an offering I never could resist, even when I knew better. Because her sweetness was always short-lived, always out of the blue, so you could never predict or count on it. And that made the rest of the hours and weeks and years that much worse. Because you knew she was capable of something more, something different. And you were left always hoping for it, waiting for that rarely glimpsed side of her to show itself. Never quite able to let go.

I was floored by Engel’s ability to put that kind of brutal loss and the following feelings into words, and so grateful for it. Reading this book a week after the 12 month anniversary of the worst day of my life, I cried for large chunks of the first half of it, but it also helped me to get out some of the frustration. 

Frankly, I didn’t think any of us had any idea what Junie might have wanted. Maybe her fury at being wrenched from the world would have been even greater than mine. Maybe she’d crave blood and revenge. Or maybe she’d want mercy and the mother she remembered. But Junie was gone, and what she would have wanted didn’t matter anymore. All that mattered was what I could live with in the aftermath.

It was something of a relief to see what I was/am feeling in print.

All of this was my fault, really. Because if I’d had a little more imagination, stolen the idea before the universe had grabbed on to it, maybe my girl would still be alive.

I didn’t understand how my daughter, whose presence lit up a room, whose life made mine bearable, could be dead. Shouldn’t the world have stopped spinning the moment she left it?

I tell you of my experiences so you can begin to understand just how well-formed, poetic, and tangible Engel’s writing is. She doesn’t shy away from the hard stuff, but rather leans into it. And yes, that might sound like not much fun, but for readers who like hard-hitting prose, well-formed characters, and emotions that are so well-written you feel you could reach out and touch them.

This is about a sudden loss; about doing all you can to bring the guilty party to justice; about the hopelessness, rage, loss, and anxiety that come in waves with this kind of brutal act. But most of all it’s about seeing such a thing through to its end and learning how to live again afterwards.

The seasons would keep on passing, the days and weeks and months rolling on, taking me further and further from my daughter. Until one day, sooner than I could comprehend, I would have lived with her absence longer than her presence. Her life a brief, shining light fading into shadow.



Category: Book Reviews

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