Written by David Bell — Tom Stuart is a professor of English in an un-named town in America. He and his wife Abby sit amid the ruins of their slowly crumbling marriage, a disintegration brought about almost entirely by the abduction of their 12-year-old daughter. Four years have passed, with neither sight nor sound of Caitlin, and the police investigation has stalled. Abby has turned for consolation to a nearby church community, and is spending more and more time with its charismatic and apparently wholesome pastor. Tom’s view of the likelihood of Caitlin ever being found – alive or dead – is more ambivalent than Abby’s. She persuades him to get rid of the pet dog that Caitlin was walking when she was taken, and she organises a memorial stone to be unveiled in the nearby cemetery.
After ducking out of the ceremony to unveil Caitlin’s memorial to go drinking with his half-brother, Tom goes to a strip joint to meet a lawyer, Liann Stipe, who herself has suffered the loss of a teenage daughter. With Liann is Tracy, a troubled young dancer and stripper. Tracy reveals that while dancing in one of the club’s private booths, she has seen a girl answering Caitlin’s description – with a rough-looking middle-aged man. There was no evidence that the girl was under duress. Tracy is interviewed by the police, and is able to provide a good enough description of the man for them to circulate an artist’s impression. This revives the investigation, but Tom has another mystery to trouble him. Who is the waif-like teenage girl he has seen in the darkness in the nearby cemetery?
Then, after picking up a young girl out walking the street late at night, the police are astonished to find that it may be Caitlin. She is undernourished and tired, but otherwise apparently in good health. Her identity is confirmed, and she returns to Tom and Abby. A medical examination finds that she has been sexually active, but there are no signs of trauma. Caitlin absolutely refuses to talk to either the police or her parents and the mystery deepens. As a result of the renewed interest in the case, they arrest a suspect called John Colter. Tom and Abby are horrified to learn that Caitlin not only refuses to talk about the previous four years, but says she wants to return to Colter.
The illogical affinity between captive and captor has been named the Stockholm Syndrome, and in one of its manifestations, the captive wrongly interprets a lack of abuse from the captor as an indicator of kindness. In order to learn the truth about why Caitlin has such positive feelings about Colter, Tom decides to make a dangerous pact with his daughter, and sets out on a course of action which is fraught with danger, both physical and psychological.
When Tom finally confronts Caitlin’s abductor, a simple two word question posed by Colter raises another grim possibility. Whether or not this is what Bell intends us to think, the very open ending of the story allows many different interpretations, not the least of which is the unpalatable fact that abusers of children are very likely to have been abused themselves in their youth. Although the book is gripping, in a grisly sort of way, Bell pushes plausibility to the absolute limit and beyond. The enigmatic conclusion asks more questions than it answers, despite the apparent closure brought about by Caitlin’s words at the very end of the book. Cemetery Girl has been available in Kindle for some time, but is now out as a paperback.
Another book exploring a similar theme, from a British perspective, is Behind Closed Doors. We reviewed it in January.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars