In the Clearing, J.P. Pomare
I distinctly remember years ago, standing in a bank queue behind a small, blonde, immaculately turned out woman, who I eventually recognised as Anne Hamilton-Byrne. At the time I mused why it was that nobody had written Australian crime fiction about the sorts of cults that she was responsible for. Even then, in the outer Melbourne fringes, we'd all heard stories about the odd goings in her circle, we knew about the blonde children, and we knew it was dodgy. Alas we didn't find out until many years later just how dodgy, how cruel, how manipulative, and how utterly unbelievable the whole thing was.
Forward many many years later and New Zealand born, Australian based, Ngaio Marsh award winning author, J.P. Pomare has written a novel about the way that cults work, the controlling behaviour, their methods of "recruiting", and the damage that they cause.
IN THE CLEARING is told from two different points of view. Firstly Amy, a teenager and long-term member of a reclusive community led by the charismatic Adrienne, or 'The Queen' as they refer to her. The group are a classic cult setup - mistrust of anybody outside is encouraged, community rules are brutally upheld, and there is plenty of sexual and psychological manipulation going on. Secondly there's Freya, a yoga teacher, living near the river on a small property that she is battling heat and drought on. She lives with her young son, and there are very few people that know she has a second, older son that she lost touch with many years ago. She has a large guard dog and she's hyper-vigilant, for reasons that eventually become clear. When a young girl goes missing from the area it's Freya who has seen odd glimpses of unexpected behaviour, and it's Freya who has some very particular suspicions.
Littered with subtle misdirection, building separate storylines into a complex web, IN THE CLEARING is a masterclass in psychological thrillers. The pace starts out purposeful and very deliberate, pulling the reader into investing in the lives of these two women. If there's something that J.P. Pomare seems to have quite a skill for - it's writing complex, flawed, involving and deeply engaging female characters. As the tension builds there is real fear to be felt here, all the while wondering exactly what these two women have, or haven't done, and what they both would be capable of.
Cleverly paced, intricately woven and unexpectedly complex, IN THE CLEARING is a slow burner, until you find yourself not being able to put it down at all. I confess to having read it in two huge gulps, way into the night, lights blaring, the vision of that small, blonde woman in the bank queue never far from my mind.
If you're interested there is now a documentary series on the ABC that goes into the background of the group known as "The Family" https://iview.abc.net.au/show/cult-of-the-family
Amy has only ever known what life is like in the Clearing. She knows what's expected of her. She knows what to do to please her elders, and how to make sure life in the community remains happy and calm. That is, until a new young girl joins the group. She isn't fitting in; she doesn't want to stay. What happens next will turn life as Amy knows it on its head.
Freya has gone to great lengths to feel like a 'normal person'. In fact, if you saw her go about her day with her young son, you'd think she was an everyday mum. That is, until a young girl goes missing and someone from her past, someone she hasn't seen for a very long time, arrives in town.
As Amy and Freya's story intertwines the secrets of the past bubble up to the surface. This rural Aussie town's dark underbelly is about to be exposed and lives will be destroyed.