The Bottom Line: Parker delivers an extraordinary debut historical thriller that will stay with readers long after the final page.
Set in the rural village of Lower Lynch in the early 1700s, eighteen-year-old Lacey Emerson lives with older sister, Bella, and her father, a baker who suffers from crippling arthritis. The three have been on their own in the years since Lacey’s mother was executed for witchcraft. Bella is considered a widow not because she has lost a husband, but because she missed out on the chance at one.
As if the daily struggle for survival isn’t enough, several local girls have gone missing. In years past, one girl would disappear every year or two. But now three girls have gone missing in the past year alone. At first, the disappearances were blamed on witches and “forest beasts.”
Now the beaches of Deception Bay as well as the Hooked Forest are off limits, even for men. The local major has instituted the Watch – a security force responsible for protecting residents. Among the changes is a curfew for girls and young women. According to Lacey’s older sister, Bella, the girls are disappearing “because they are disobedient. Because they will not listen to their fathers.”
From the book’s very first line, debut novelist N.N. Parker creates a sense of foreboding and sinister oppression. While it’s clear from the early going that Lacey possesses a healthy skepticism about both the girls’ disappearances and the universally accepted role of women in society, Parker puts her in situations that are both eye-opening and dangerous. But the closer Lacey gets to the truth, the more likely she’ll end up dying in the gallows like her mother.
An early scene in which Lacey delivers laundry to a local government official demonstrates how seemingly minor revelations can ratchet up tension to astronomical levels. In this case, a pair of dirty leather gloves, a smashed water jug and a hidden tattoo are enough to set Lacey’s mind racing. Meanwhile, a conversation with Bella in which Lacey simply wants to better understand the physicality of childbirth is meant with squeamish admonishment for thoughts deemed to be “ungodly.” In a literary universe where explicit violence and sex are so common as to have lost their impact, Parker plays on the unknown, fear and anticipation to great effect.
The result is a truly high-impact and extraordinary historical thriller with a jaw-dropping epilogue that will stay with readers for years to come.