Book reviews, musings and waffle from a British lit addict

Review: ‘The Roanoke Girls’ by Amy Engel

Review: ‘The Roanoke Girls’ by Amy Engel

Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars

Beautiful.
Rich.
Mysterious.
Everyone wants to be a Roanoke girl.

But you won’t when you know the truth.

Lane Roanoke is fifteen when she comes to live with her grandparents and fireball cousin at the Roanoke family’s rural estate following the suicide of her mother. Over one long, hot summer, Lane experiences the benefits of being one of the rich and beautiful Roanoke girls.


But what she doesn’t know is being a Roanoke girl carries a terrible legacy: either the girls run, or they die. For there is darkness at the heart of Roanoke, and when Lane discovers its insidious pull, she must make her choice…

I was in the mood for a thriller after pondering my way through Maus and this sounded right up my street.  I know there are a lot of them around right now but I wanted a real page-turner.  Something that might not feature the most sophisticated plot or the most elegant writing but something that would keep me gripped.  In a sense, I got what I wanted, even if what kept me turning the pages was morbid fascination and not curiosity.

The novel is set in two time periods, one where Lane is fifteen and newly arrived at the Roanoke estate and one where Lane is an adult, drawn back to Roanoke to assist with a police investigation into the disappearance of her cousin.  In doing so, she has to face down some of her own demons and brave what sent her running from her family in the first place.  Tucked in between these two narratives are snippets told from the perspective of the earlier Roanoke girls.

I enjoyed this at first.  There’s a mystique about the Roanoke family, something lurking in the family’s history of women who have either died tragically young or run away.  The writing is decent and it’s very readable.  The atmosphere is oppressive and tense and Lane’s terse exchanges with her now estranged family are such a stark contrast to the warmth in the chapters showing her teenage years that I was dying to know what had happened.  For perhaps a third, I had to keep reading.  Then I learned the secret at the heart of the Roanoke family and I wished that I hadn’t.  It is, frankly, repellent.  I have no problem with writing that pushes boundaries but, if I’m reading something challenging, I at least want to feel as though it’s handled well.  Actually, I don’t think that it was that it was handled badly, just that it wasn’t properly explored.  We’re told about why it’s believable and why nobody just did the right thing but it just doesn’t feel realistic.  It’s too extreme.  Too much. The fact that the family is rich and that they’re all beautiful and charming just makes things a bit too easy. It feels relentless and reading it was emotionally exhausting.  Harrowing.  I kept reading because I hoped that there would be balance or pay-off at the end.  There was in a way but not enough to offset the general queasiness I’d felt while reading.

It’s hard to write more about this without spoilers.  I suppose if nothing else it was powerful.  It’s a hard hitting novel that doesn’t pull its punches and it definitely had an impact on me.  The characters are varying degrees of damaged and unpleasant but the supporting characters at least are interesting to read about.  While Lane is trying to help find her cousin, she has to face up to her past and spend time with some of the people that she hurt the first time she ran away.  It fits in with her story and I quite liked the take on small town America.  If there’d perhaps been a little less emotional trauma and a little more criminal investigation, I think the net result would have stronger.  As it was, I felt like reading this was more of an ordeal than I like in my fiction!

Overall:  Grim.  If you’re actively seeking out something that will give you a pretty full on story breaking all sorts of taboos, you’ll get that with The Roanoke Girls.  If you’re not in the market for some extreme emotional manipulation and sexual abuse, this probably isn’t the book for you.  It wasn’t really the book for me, unfortunately.

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Date finished:  26 February 2017
Format: eBook
Source: Received from the publisher in exchange for an honest review via NetGalley – thank you, Hodder & Stoughton
Genre: Thriller; Mystery
Pictured Edition Published: on 7 March 2017 by Hodder & Stoughton