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Posted: April 7, 2020

Amy Engel’s brutal honesty is appealing

Book Review

By Derryll White

Engel, Amy (2020).  The Familiar Dark.

I haven’t read Amy Engel before, but her opening sequence in ‘The Familiar Dark’ is as electrifying as anything I have read.  A single mother and working waitress, Eve Taggert experiences the horrible fact of having her 12-year-old murdered, along with the daughter’s friend.  This introduces the horror every parent lives with. Welcome to Barren Springs, Missouri.

The author draws out Evie’s anger, making it palpable and real.  She has Eve Taggert go straight at the national reporters covering the story, rejecting the common image of bereft parent and instead stating she will find the murderer and rip him apart. An eye for an eye! Amy Engel puts a true face on being female – and chooses to take the risks of speaking her mind.

Engel introduces the reader to rural Missouri, a separate country delineated by poverty and male privilege. It is bleak and harsh, not a country most readers would call home. The author worked as a criminal defence attorney in Missouri before writing this novel.  Eve Taggert is the character to negotiate this morass, honed by family abuse, gender exploitation, poverty and the senseless murder of her daughter.

Amy Engel is someone readers will definitely hear more from. I find her brutal honesty appealing.

Excerpts from the novel:

DYING – She tilted her eyes upward, the only part of her body she could seem to move.  Saw the edge of the swing set, a branch coated in white, the flat, iron gray sky.  Last time she’d been here was with her mother.  They’d had ice cream that melted down their hands faster than they could eat it.  Hot, sweaty dusk and fireflies.  Swinging side by side and Junie’s mother jumping off her swing at its highest arc, blond hair whipping out behind her, throaty laugh cutting through the air.  Telling Junie the secret was not to think about it.  Close your eyes and fly.

REALITY – Maggie glanced at me, something timeless and weary passing between us.  The world might be changing in some places, but not here.  Here it was still the same old merry-go-round of drugs and poverty and women being chewed up and spit out by men.  People in other worlds could wear black evening gowns and give speeches about equality and not backing down, but out here in the trenches, we fought our war alone and we lost the battles every day.

FEMALE – Truth is, there’s no good way to navigate being female in this world.  If you speak out, say no, stand your ground, you’re a bitch and a harpy, and whatever happens to you is your own fault.  You had it coming.  But if you smile, say yes, survive on politeness, you’re weak and desperate.  An easy mark.  Prey in a world full of predators.  There are no risk-free options for women, no choices that don’t come back to smack us in our face.

– Derryll White once wrote books but now chooses to read and write about them.  When not reading he writes history for the web at www.basininstitute.org.

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