Published by Harper Avenue
“What you see in the bush is rarely what’s really there.”
Kira is engaged to the handsome and rich Aaron with whom she has a child, Evie. They live in a beautiful house with Olive, Aaron’s 13-year-old daughter from his first marriage. Aaron loves his daughters and seems to be a caring father. Kira feels she now has a perfect family, something she has always wanted. Her childhood was difficult: she had a troubled relationship with her mother and, after her parents divorced, she became estranged from her father.
However, there is a problem with Kira’s perfect life. Aaron’s ex-wife Madison has been harassing them, demanding to see Olive. Madison seems unhinged, and Kira fights to keep the child away from her. Aaron worries that she will fill Olive’s head with lies about her father. This is something that Kira understands because after her parents’ divorce, her mother poisoned Kira’s mind with lies about her father, which led to Kira’s estrangement from him.
When Aaron has to go away for a few days, Kira takes Olive and Evie to her cottage on Manitoulin Island, Ontario, hoping to shake off Madison. There she finds that Madison has followed them, and Kira has to fight for the children and for her own sanity.
The story is narrated by Kira. Gail Anderson-Dargatz slips enough pointers into this first-person narrative to make the reader question Kira’s judgement. Is Aaron really as perfect as she thinks he is?
This thriller deals with some big issues: emotional blackmail, brainwashing, childhood trauma and child abuse. Both Kira and Aaron suffer from childhood trauma; they have been manipulated (and in Aaron’s case, beaten) by a controlling parent. Kira has lost her confidence and sense of self-worth, and turns to Aaron for emotional support. But can Aaron give her what she needs?
I love Anderson-Dargatz’s writing; she has an eye for detail and a way of building up tension. There is a passage where Kira chases after Olive, who has run away from her into the woods on the island. Kira sees a figure running away from her, “though only as movement between trees”. Then the figure turns and runs towards her. She thinks it might be Olive coming back to her, but the figure is moving too fast. “First there by that tree, then behind another, closer, then just up ahead.” She flees from it and turns back to look once she is safely on the road “to see the dark figure standing on the camp road by the barn, but still now, as if it was only a tree, as if I had conjured it up out of my own fear.” For Kira, the woods are full of ghosts from her past.
One of the things I enjoy in Anderson-Dargatz’s books is a strong sense of place. Manitoulin Island is almost a character in its own right with its sleepy little town where everyone knows everyone else, and where the woods are full of secrets and ghosts.
I couldn’t put the book down: Anderson-Dargatz ratchets up the tension and does not let go until the end. This is her first thriller, and I look forward to more.