“There were four of us down there for the first thirty-two months and eleven days of our captivity. And then, very suddenly, and without warning, there were three.” From the very first line of Koethi Zan’s hotly tipped debut you know you’re in for a terrifying read, made all the more disturbing by recent news stories which have revealed just how credible this story of abduction and torture is.
After a serious car accident during their adolescence best friends Sarah and Jennifer realise what dangers are lurking in the big, bad world. So they create The Never List. Tornadoes, plane crashes, asteroid strikes; these things are statistically unlikely and take comfort in that. Rape, abduction, murder; these are possibilities, so they take steps to protect themselves. But one moment of inattention leads Sarah and Jennifer into a strange car then a madman’s cellar. And they’re not the only ones there. Tracy and Christine are long termers and as they reveal what they know of the cellar’s previous occupants escape seems unlikely.
But they do escape – we don’t know how – and thirteen years on we meet Sarah again, living a reclusive existence, under an assumed name, in a well appointed Upper West Side apartment which she never leaves. While Sarah hides in a prison of her making Christine has reinvented herself as a trophy wife and Tracy, always the most defiant of them, is now a spiky punk. Jennifer, we learn, did not escape. The three women share a complicated history and have no desire to see each other again, but Professor Jack Derber, the man who abducted them is up for parole and their testimony is vital to him being denied it.
During his incarceration Derber has been sending cryptic notes to his victims, trying to draw them back to the town where they were held, playing on Sarah’s need to know what happened to Jennifer. Reluctant but determined Sarah returns to Ohio, eventually convincing Tracy to help her, and the two plunge into the murky world of sex clubs and the possibly even murkier one of academia, looking for the truth. But Derber is still playing them and they discover that there may be other victims out there still waiting for release.
Koethi Zan picks up the abduction narrative where most authors leave it, exploring the psychological toll it takes on survivors and skilfully weaves this into a gut-wrenching thriller which will have you double checking the locks before you go to bed. (It will probably put you off taking taxis for awhile too.) At the heart of the book is the relationship between the survivors and it is a fraught one, guilt-laden, antagonistic and downright brutal in places, but slowly Zan exposes the underlying reasons and they are just as twisty and unexpected as the rest of the book.
The Never List is a highly accomplished debut which puts an original spin on the ‘girl in the cellar’ story and marks Koethi Zan out as an author to watch. I can’t wait to see what does next.