Thursday, July 7, 2011

Some Secrets are Better Left Unknown


Belonging... that sense of security we get from being included in something. We always have a need for it and, whether the end goal is being allowed to hang with the “cool kids”, getting to spend time with that dream guy or girl, or gaining admission to a prestigious club, our reasons for desiring it are much the same: we’ll be better/happier/more successful than we are now, if only we can manage to fit in. If we can belong.
Not every group requires that sort of overt acceptance. Take, for instance, family. There’s seldom any shortage of angst or aggro among relatives, but those problems typically stem from issues other than any question of belonging. Whether we like it or not, sharing space on a family tree means we’re automatically part of the group. 
To someone who’s adopted, though, the situation isn’t quite so cut and dried, because familial belonging involves more than just so many years of common experiences or time spent living under the same roof. The question of identity goes deeper than the rhetorical “Who am I?” (asked at one time or another by pretty much everyone); adoptees also find themselves wondering, “Where did I come from?”.
There are no easy answers, of course--not for anyone. But sometimes, we’d be better off not asking the questions, at all... a case Chevy Stevens makes in her latest thriller, Never Knowing.
§ - § - § - § - § - § - § 
Sara Gallagher is a typical young woman, dealing with an imperfect life. In her early thirties, she owns the house which she shares with six-year-old daughter Ally (from a previous relationship) and their beloved French bulldog, Moose; she runs a successful small business (repairing and restoring old furniture); and, she has--at long last--found a guy who really seems worth all the effort involved in settling down.
Not everything is so peachy, though. Sara has plenty of issues to deal with... hence the weekly visits to her therapist, where she can discuss her obsessive-compulsive behaviors, the episodes of paranoia, the panic attacks, and her anger-management problems (which occasionally culminate in violence).
Then there’s her family situation, which is a total mess. As the elder sister--who was adopted before either of her two natural-born sisters came along--Sara has long dealt with being treated differently. Although her adoptive mother has always tried to smooth things over, she can only do so much to counteract her husband’s obvious dislike of and disappointment with Sara... and their behaviors are repeated in how the other two daughters treat Sara, as well.
It comes as no big surprise, then, that Sara grew up dreaming of her “real” parents, fantasizing about a fabulous couple who were forced to give her up... but who will surely return to swoop her up into their happy family someday. Even now, at thirty-three, she can’t shake the feeling that she’s meant to find them.
So, after going through an especially rough patch with her family, Sara decides to start the wheels turning to find her birth mother. She fills out the paperwork, submits it, then waits--anxiously wondering what she’ll find.
When the report arrives, it’s incomplete; she has a name--Julia Laroche--and number for her birth mother, but the spot for the father’s info is blank. Still, it’s more info than she’s ever had, so, after marshaling her courage, she dials the number... only to be told in no uncertain terms that she is never to call again.
She’s crushed, of course. She mopes and feels sorry for herself, but eventually bucks up once more, telling herself she has nothing to lose. And, a couple of long car trips (and the services of one private eye) later, finds Sara meeting Julia, face-to-face... and learning a truth more awful than anything out of one of her worst nightmares.
Julia, it turns out, is the sole survivor of a sadistic serial killer--a man who has plagued the wilds of Canada for almost thirty-five years. Unlike all the other young women the so-called Campsite Killer has targeted, though, her mother got away--but not without suffering, first. Before she escaped the madman, Julia was raped... and Sara is the (very-unwanted) product of that horrifying act.
When news of Julia’s whereabouts (she had changed her name and moved following the initial attack and all the press which followed) is somehow leaked--with Sara being linked to Julia (and to the infamous killer)--and posted all over the internet, all hell breaks loose. Her family is shocked and angry--over things that aren’t remotely her fault. Her fiancé is upset, because he didn’t want her to pursue finding her birth parents, in the first place. 
The very worst part, though, is what Sara now fears most--that her daughter Ally’s existence will become common knowledge, too... and that the boogeyman will be coming for them.
It soon becomes clear that a reunion with the family he never knew about is precisely what Daddy Dearest has in mind... and that Sara is far more like this man with whom she shares DNA than she is different from him.
§ - § - § - § - § - § - §
Stevens employs a little gimmick for telling the story: it unfolds through a series of transcripts from each of Sara’s sessions with her therapist. (Sara is the only one speaking in the transcripts, so it’s still primarily first-person--except for when she directs comments or thoughts to her therapist.) Stevens used the same formula to very good effect in her first book (Still Missing, reviewed here), and so far, it’s working for her.
There’s much to like in Never Knowing. It builds--and maintains--a high level of suspense throughout. The basic premise--the shock of finding out you’re the child of a brutal serial killer--is novel; it hasn’t been done to death already. It’s genuinely chilling, seeing how easy it is for the killer to contact her, and for him to elude capture. And, Stevens provides an excellent feel for place that really adds to the story; the vastness of British Columbia--and the remoteness of so much of it--contribute to the mounting terror.  
Knowing that Sara’s trying to cope with some genuine mental health issues (both before and after finding out about her biological father) adds yet another interesting layer. (Note that the book doesn’t delve into any actual therapy; it just gives a sense of how someone with stuff to work through might deal with being put in an untenable situation.)  
But, there are also some sticking points for me. Sara’s stubbornness--her (frankly)obnoxious and selfish insistence on hounding a woman who clearly doesn’t want to get to know her (regardless of the reason)--rankles with me. (I know, I know--there wouldn’t have been much of a story if she hadn’t forced her way into Julia’s life... but still.) I don’t completely buy the relationship between Sara and her fiancé, either; it feels a bit thin. Finally, the whole thing would have benefitted by being pared down a hundred or so pages; even though the tension is maintained, some passages get a mite repetitious.
Overall, Never Knowing is a bit of a mixed bag... but it’s definitely an interesting take on a serial killer tale, and well worth reading for fans of psychological suspense.

GlamKitty Catnip Mousie Rating: 3.25 out of 5 Mousies

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