There are some books that you read that you know that you will remember a long time after you’ve finished them and this can be for good and bad reasons, varying from vivid characterisation and a great plot to poor writing and a lack of clear purpose. My reading of The Roanoke Girls will cause reflection in me for days to come and this will be as a result of the emotional wringer that it put me through.
Let me be clear: there is nothing bad about this book as a work of fiction. It is, I think, brilliantly written; possibly one of the singularly most intense books I have ever read in my life. Engel’s characterisation of Lane is a powerful depiction of a woman coming to terms with what she knows about her past and trying to find a way through it all to some sort of peace and maybe, just maybe, the possibility of a stable future and happiness. Her narrative is honest to the point of brutality. She shares her feelings and emotions with such candour, even the nasty bits where she is cruel. There are no excuses made here. What Engel does instead is reveal by degrees Lane’s story. We navigate between “Now” and “Then”, Lane having left the family home of Roanoke at 16, where her grandparents had provided her with a place to grow up after her mother had died. There, she finds the chance of familial love and a place where she belongs, something which she has not had to date. She also meets her cousin, Allegra, a friend as well as a relative, with whom Lane develops an especially strong bond.
When Allegra disappears and Lane feels compelled to return after a call from her grandfather, we are thrown into the world that Lane escaped and all the secrets that can lie at the heart of a family. She also has to revisit the past in terms of the other people she left behind besides Allegra, like Cooper, her first love and Tommy, another childhood friend, now a policeman. Memories, desires and pain resurface and Lane is in danger of succumbing to them all.
A great book in terms of characterisation, tension and an examination of ties that bind. If you are not a fan of novels that deal with distorted relationships that could be viewed quite rightly as unhealthy, steer clear.