I waited in the library queue for many months for 'Foxlowe' by Eleanor Wasserberg. Simon Savage reviewed it back in the summer and I regularly trust his recommendations. The book is about a community of people who share a mouldering old house and appear on the surface to share a philosophy about life, but in fact are controlled quite blatantly by Freya, who has created a mythology around the 'Bad' outside and the protective qualities of the local stone circle and its magical solstice sunset. The story is told by Green and focusses on the lives of the three children, herself, Toby and her little sister Blue, and their growing up, isolated from, suspicious of, but also curious about, the outside world. You can see immediately that what you are reading about is a cult; the inward looking community is dominated by Freya who's whims and peculiarities are the guiding light of everyone's behaviour, and Leavers are only mentioned in hushed whispers. While it was an engaging story I found myself on the outside looking in, somehow finding it far fetched and a little predictable. There was no depth to any of the other adult characters, they just seemed to people the background. The passage of time is very vague, years seem to go by with no change, except that instead of thriving you have the sense that they are going downhill, there are no resources to pay the water or electricity bill and food often seems scarce. But then the arrival of two women from Social Services sparks a crisis. The rest of the tale is told partly in retrospect by Green, now called Jess, after the breakup of the Family. Her inability to make a new life and a yearning to recreate what has become, for her, an idyllic childhood is something that preoccupies her.
While I think the insidious nature of Freya's control is very well portrayed I felt that the lack in the other adult characters was just a weak way of never having any of them challenge what was going on. It was believable for the children to grow up in this way, but adults with other life experience and their own moral code would not have stayed quiet. I guess I also find gullible and superstitious people a bit annoying and cannot credit why any intelligent person would believe that a circle of salt will protect you from bad stuff. Rejecting society to grow your own food, raise your children in a natural environment and make art is one thing, believing in some weird myths about 'Bad' just left me cold. Having read several of the 'How to spot a psychopath' type articles on the interweb it was patently obvious that Freya is not a well woman and the lasting impact of her behaviour on Green is well telegraphed.
"Of course I knew it would be the Spike Walk straight away, but Freya liked to tease it out. When it was me, she'd come and sit on the bed and ask me how I thought I should be punished, and I'd suggest ways, but it was always the Spike Walk in the end. Somehow it was worse to play the same game for Blue. It was her first time." (p.55)
"She glanced round at everyone, and I followed where she looked, a trick I'd learned. It avoided her gaze, but also made her happy with me, as though I was with her. Dylan was pale and miserable. He looked between Kai, still slumped against the stone, and Freya. Ellen and Pet were biting their nails, their eyes damp. Egg was staring at his feet, his hands in his pockets. Toby knew my trick and stared right back at me, blinking slowly. Blue rocked from foot to foot and ran her thumbnail over her top lip, calming herself." (p.96)
"Freya brought her arm around me, and held up the mirror, just as I had done with Blue. Split by the cracks, our eyes and brows and lips came back to us disassembled, and I saw how much my eyes were Freya's eyes, how they narrowed at the ends, how the lashes didn't curl like Blue's but stuck out long and startling.
- What a beauty you're growing up to be, Freya said.
I smiled and one of the broken lips curled up, showing straight stained teeth.
Freya laughed again, holding her nose, like she was underwater.
- Oh! Poor Green. I don't mean it. You can't see, you're a skinny rag, no flesh on you, your arse is flat and you've no boobs at all, and your hips jut out like knives. But don't worry - she pulled my hair - You're a good girl. Want to keep it? Finders keepers?
I knew the answer to this one.
- No, it's everyone's. I'll put it in Jumble to share, I said." (p.137-8)
"The Family took up this thread guiltily, steering us away to a kinder place, away from the sharp drop of the question of our baby, our youngest sister, becoming a Leaver. We were more indulgent of Blue than was normal, and spoke about how different it was for her, because she didn't know about the world, and we should only try and make her understand, so that she didn't misstep again, and when Freya pointed out that I, Green, was even more of a born Foxlowe girl, but I was good, and I knew how to behave, I could only say, - Blue doesn't have the Bad, she just doesn't. And then the group began to grumble about hunger, and talk turned to food. Freya stepped over Blue and gave her a look that said she hadn't done with her yet, and there would be a Spike Walk for her later, and then gave her a nod to dismiss her." (p.182-3)
So, an interesting and somewhat disturbing coming-of-age tale, a young girl yearning for unconditional love; I was going to say a salutary lesson in the power of nurture over nature, and then I realised that Freya is her mother, so maybe, in this case, it's both.