A Scary Tale of Misguided Love, Child Abuse, Power Relations and the Nature of Memory and Narration

Foxlowe - Eleanor Wasserberg, HarperCollins Publishers Limited


Thanks to Net Galley and to Harper Collins for providing me with a free copy of this novel in exchange for an unbiased review.

There are novels that might not treat the most original topics, but have great characters and tell interesting stories and we enjoy them and recommend them to others who enjoy books in that genre. There are novels that might be difficult to read because of the subject (or sometimes memoirs or non-fiction books) but they are so unique or treat about something so important, that we persevere no matter what, although the experience might not be enjoyable as such. There are novels that connect with us at an emotional level; they take a place in our heart and we always remember them with affection. Of course there are novels that we might not remember a few months (or even before if we read a lot) later.

Foxlowe isn’t a novel easy to forget. The first person narrator, Green, or Jess or… is a young girl when the story starts, and is telling us of her experiences in a house called Foxlowe. There is a community living there, as self-enclosed and isolated from the rest of the world as it’s possible (it isn’t even that clear the exact period the story takes places in as we start reading), where the adults are artists and craftsmen that live of selling their work and also of toiling the land.  Despite the fact that later we realise these are modern times, they seem to live making use of very few, if any, modern commodities. They have their own beliefs (a cult?) that seem to involve the power of nature, the Sun in particular, the Solstice and the double sunset that they believe hold special healing powers. There is the Bad, that lives rampant outside their small community, and there are a number of rites and ceremonies that they take part in to keep the Bad away. The adults seem to have decided at some point that they could educate children in a much better way than modern society does. Green is one of these young children they decide to bring up, but not the only one. We soon discover that some of the ways they use to get rid of the Bad involve physical punishment, and the Spikes Walk is something I won’t forget in a hurry.

The book is divided in three parts. In the first, Green tells us how she feels and what happens while she’s living there as a young girl and a new baby arrives. What would have been sibling rivalry in a normal family takes on a much darker connotation there. Part two takes place after the Foxlowe experience and we get hints of what has happened to Green since she left, how difficult it is for her to fit in the real world (she can’t even read or write, and as she had no memories pre-Foxlowe, she has nothing to hold on to), and we know that something terrible happened. Part three goes back to explain what resulted in the demise of Foxlowe. And it is as bad as we might have suspected.

By using the first person and a young girl with no knowledge of any other life, the author creates an intense narration of how it is to belong to such a group, and how strong the identification with their goals and beliefs can be, the lack of outside perspective and the complete lack of a separate identity. I find unreliable narrators fascinating, although in the case of Green it is difficult to know if she’s unreliable or unaware. In part three she shows some insight into her circumstances, but she is still caught up in the ‘family’ and what she seems to think was a wonderful experience. Although she keeps meeting other members of the group who don’t share her view of things, she holds on to her own memories and they are coloured by what she chooses/has to believe. The ending chilled me to the bone.

Wasserberg creates a strong feeling of place, and creates in the reader the claustrophobia of having no way out and seeing things from a skewed perspective. If the language, the stories, the descriptions of the landscape and some of the activities are bucolic and aesthetically pleasing and even poetic, the horror of the actions of the group (be the leader, Freya, or the followers) are even more shocking because of it. What some people call love is indeed scarier that the worst monster in horror movies.

I recommend this book to people looking for a great read (although it is not an easy one) that will make them think and feel uncomfortable, too. Would we act like the members of the group in similar circumstances, or are we perhaps already doing that?