A dark tangle of thorns: The Roanoke Girls by Amy Engel
The Roanoke Girls is a dark literary thriller about one family and their mysterious secrets. Lane Roanoke goes to live with her grandparents and wild cousin after her mother’s death, trading New York for the family home Roanoke in rural Kansas. There, she becomes drawn into the family’s history and the life that her mother escaped before Lane was born. It soon becomes apparent that Lane left after that summer, but when a sudden event brings her back to Roanoke, there is a lot to be faced about that summer.
Engel’s novel is tense and carefully constructed, with a classic thriller structure of telling past and present narratives concurrently. The writing style is simple yet atmospheric, drawing a vivid picture of the large and oppressive house and the nearby small town where Lane and her cousin Allegra search out amusement. Lane’s grappling with her own nature, her ability to love and hate, and her attempts to escape Roanoke and being one of the Roanoke girls make her a complexly figured and compelling character. Engel doesn’t feed the reader details, but leaves plenty of the past broadly painted and lets the horror simmer in the background, particularly in relation to the other girls in the family.
Though the plot is broadly a thriller or mystery type narrative, The Roanoke Girls is more than that, a haunting book about dark secrets and about the strange kinds of bonds that tie people together, whether good or bad. The epigraph is a quote from Lolita and The Roanoke Girls shares the darkly oppressive and shocking atmosphere of Nabokov’s novel, but with a lighter prose style and a mystery narrative. It is perfect for thriller fans, but also people who prefer something a little more complex, exposing a dark yet compelling side to human nature.
(Thanks to Hodder and Goodreads for the proof copy I won, which is also a gorgeous looking book.)