Roanoke girls never last long around here. In the end, we either run or we die.
For me, the word ‘Roanoke’ immediately conjured up images from the last series of American Horror Story and I expected the book to be a horror. Although it isn’t a work in the horror genre, it’s one of the most disturbing books I’ve read in a very long time as it tackles one of society’s ultimate taboos.
Growing up, Lane Roanoke’s mother recounted hazy stories of her upbringing in her home in Osage Flats, Kansas. Lane never understood why her mother was so unhappy and why she ran away from home. When Lane was 15, her mother committed suicide and Lane decides to spend a summer with her grandparents, Yates and Lillian Roanoke, and her cousin Allegra, who is a year older than her. Initially, she discovers that her family is wealthy and live on a sprawling farm, also called Roanoke, and that they are respected in the small town. But Lane also suspects that there is a terrible family secret hidden within the walls of the house and she is determined to find out what it is. Her grandfather is the only male Roanoke and all offspring have been girls. Yet, all the Roanoke girls have either run away from home or have died at a young age. Lane recounts her memories of the summer she spent with her family ten years ago and the awful secret she uncovered that forced her to run away like her mother and all the others. The book is comprised of a past narrative, in which Lane gets to know her cousin and learns her terrible family secret, and a contemporary narrative in which Lane learns that Allegra has disappeared suddenly. Lane suspects that Allegra may have left clues about her whereabouts and her motivation for running away that only she can find.
Amy Engel creates intriguing and contradictory female characters that illustrate the complexities of our teenage years. As a YA writer, Engel writes powerful and believable teenage characters that are both relatable but also deeply flawed. Lane Roanoke is a character whose family history weighs on her. The book masterfully jumps between the past and the present to examine the power that our family history has on our lives. In the contemporary narrative, Lane is still scarred by the secrets she uncovered about her family and is still struggling to accept where she came from. The family secrets are so powerful, they destroyed every woman in her family for the last three generations apart from her grandmother, who is portrayed as cold and unloving.
The descriptions of the house itself are fit for any gothic tale, as its labyrinthine layout and sprawling estate add to the mystery of Lane’s lineage. Lane’s memories of the summer she spent on the estate ten years before are also affected by the heat of the summer. The events and memories seem hazy and dreamlike and are recounted as if in a hallucination. Similar to The Dry by Jane Harper, the heat here stands for the tensions and secrets that are bubbling under the surface of the narrative. In Harper’s book, the tensions are building on a community-scale; here, although the wider community is also involved, the main tensions are building within the walls of the Roanoke mansion, a house that is bursting with lurid and twisted secrets and unhappiness.
Without giving away the ending, one of the main problems I had with the book was the lack of female authority. Although the book is narrated by a strong female character, and each of the female family members are given short sections in the book, male power tends to dominate. Women are ultimately portrayed as vulnerable and hysterical and men aren’t held accountable for their actions. The final outcome is shocking and frustrating but, perhaps, this is what is most disturbing about the book and about society. Perhaps Engel’s ending is intended to frustrate readers as it is meant to reflect the injustices of the real world.
Overall, it’s a book that leaves you cold, unfulfilled, and uncomfortable but that is its purpose.