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Gretchen, Shannon Kirk

Written by Shannon Kirk — The crime – the first one, that is – is kidnapping. Shannon Kirk’s gripping new psychological thriller Gretchen begins with a mother determined to prevent her daughter’s father from taking her. Susan explains to Lucy that he’s from a country where women have no rights and live practically like slaves, and he will do anything – send anyone – to get her back. They’ve been on the run since Lucy was a toddler, never really settling down, and now they are fleeing Indiana, their 10th state.

What will a mother do to protect her child? Live on the fringes of society and be prepared to pack up and leave at any moment. Never engage with anyone or reveal anything about themselves. Never even make eye contact. Susan and Lucy have fake identities, Susan changes cars fairly often, they pay cash for everything, accessing Susan’s hidden stash when they run short.

Now that she’s 15, Lucy is tired of the secrets, tired of the hiding, tired of not having friends, exhausted by Susan’s paranoia. Homeschooled until recently, she barely has acquaintances, since she can’t really share personal information with anyone she meets in school. As the book opens, a chance encounter in a park with a man who acts as if he recognises her forces them to pick up sticks and flee once again.

Susan has found them a rental home in the small New Hampshire town of Milberg. Although the place gives off a creepy vibe, Lucy wants to stay, to settle. The landlord, who lives up the hill in a big brick house, has a daughter her age, Gretchen, and though the girl seems a bit odd, maybe she can be a friend. Kirk’s depiction of Lucy, in the chapters she narrates, is a persuasive picture of adolescent psychology. Hoping for a friend despite the negative signals, severe and over-confident in her judgments of Susan, but silently questioning all of her own actions.

Their new landlord, Jerry Sabin, in an excess of candour, tells them right away how 11 years earlier his pregnant wife was shot by a careless hunter and she and the baby died, with only four-year-old Gretchen on hand as witness. He shows them the security system set up in the woods surrounding their hilltop property, elaborate electric fencing and big game nets. He even lets them see a hidden house rumored to be haunted. The local teenagers in some kind of misguided Blair Witch project have created ‘ghost traps’ there, camouflaged holes filled with rocks that can break your leg if you step in one. Susan and Lucy are convinced. They’ll steer clear of all of it. No woods. No hidden house.

You’d think Susan would see Jerry’s over-the-top precautions as beneficial to her own purposes, but Jerry and Gretchen are just too strange. She wants to leave, but reluctantly lets Lucy have her way. Before long, Lucy comes to the same conclusion about the Sabins. Gretchen is puzzle-obsessed, and one visit inside the Sabin’s house is enough for Lucy to hope never to return. I had to stop reading a while myself, the wierdness was overwhelming, as Kirk expertly handles the ramp-up of tension between Lucy and Gretchen.

Lucy fills her days with her summer job at the local gourmet grocery store – a rare bit of mom-authorised independence – and being out-of-doors in Gretchen’s company. Lucy paints while Gretchen works puzzles.

At work one day, Lucy encounters the man who recognised her back in Indiana. Apparently, in an awkward coincidence, he and his son live in Milberg. He recognises her again. And contrary to every paranoid impulse Susan has drilled into her, Lucy doesn’t tell. To her own surprise, she doesn’t tell, even though it could turn out to be the riskiest decision possible. Of course she’s not the only one with secrets. Susan has a big one, and the Sabins, well… These hidden aspects of their lives means you have some significant surprises in store.

Kirk’s flair for description brings the creepy landlord and his daughter’s bizarre lives and dwelling vividly to life. They are a stark contrast to the middle-class normality of the Milberg residents Lucy observes from behind her cash register, a normality she’s struggling to become part of.

If you like psychological thrillers, also try The Last Stage by Louise Voss or Spare Room by Dreda Say Mitchell.

Thomas & Mercer

CFL Rating: 4 Stars

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