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Written by DA Serra — What would you be capable of, if the lives of those dearest to you were at stake?  This is what Alison Kraft is about to find out in Primal, by screenwriter turned novelist Deborah Serra.

Ben Burne is a lifer in prison, who has ostensibly turned to God. He fends off a knife attack and has masterminded a prison break with the help of his psychopathic, equally criminal brothers. Alison is a teacher with cheery eyes who lives in a serene suburban neighbourhood, a daydreamer exiled from the big city and piano bars. Their lives couldn’t be further apart, yet they are about to become inextricably linked, as they hunt each other down.

Alison hates camping, but she has promised her son and husband to accompany them on a fishing trip on an island in Minnesota’s North Woods. She has packed two 800-page novels and enough bug repellent to maintain a defensible perimeter, but what she hadn’t expected was that the speedboat the Burne brothers are using to escape would break down just off their campsite. With the rest of the camp held hostage by four armed men, Alison must rely on her wits and powers of improvisation to surprise and overcome the enemy. Despite her fragile, Barbie-like appearance, she has a mother’s instinct to protect her own and is transformed into a fierce fighter. Through sheer grit, inventiveness and determination, she gets rid of all but one of the aggressors.

However, the story doesn’t end here. Instead, the author explores the effects of violence on the victims once they have returned to everyday life. The chat shows picking up on Alison’s ‘I am a mother’ comment, her growing paranoia and obsession with alarms and guns, her over-protectiveness and insistence on picking up her son every day from school, the near breakdown of her family – all these are very realistically and touchingly described. Police report that the final perpetrator, Ben Burne, is dead. However Alison refuses to believe it. Allison, her husband, and everyone around her, experience that limbo between what is real and what is irrational fear.

This is a fast-paced action thriller, which you may well want to gulp down in one sitting. It is also a tense study of the psychological response to trauma. Violence, the great equaliser, can strike anyone at any time, and make the victims question the nature of good and evil. The Burne brothers are an extreme case: one of them shoots a hostage for turning on the radio to a country music channel, while another one boasts that by the age of nine he had shot three dogs, five cats and the annoying kid next door. Yet Serra shows us enough of their dysfunctional family life to suggest why they have ended up like this.

The book was originally written as a screenplay and there is certainly a cinematic quality to it, with moody descriptions, lively dialogue and a relentless sense of pace. The writing, however, is unexpected, poetic and philosophical by turn, without impinging on the action. The description of a mother hiding a gun in her son’s Batman pyjamas must be one of the most moving, yet ominous, passages of crime fiction I have read in a long time, while the use of household props to distract a rampant killer is ingenious.

A very confident debut novel, highly recommended as a summer read, although perhaps not if you are planning a camping trip.

Perry Street Pictures

CFL Rating: 4 Stars

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