Vern – seven months pregnant and desperate to escape the strict religious compound where she was raised – flees for the shelter of the woods. There, she gives birth to twins, and plans to raise them far from the influence of the outside world.
But even in the forest, Vern is a hunted woman. Forced to fight back against the community that refuses to let her go, she unleashes incredible brutality far beyond what a person should be capable of, her body wracked by inexplicable and uncanny changes.
To understand her metamorphosis and to protect her small family, Vern has to face the past, and more troublingly, the future – outside the woods. Finding the truth will mean uncovering the secrets of the compound she fled but also the violent history in America that produced it.
CW: child abuse, teenage pregnancy, body horror, gore, homophobia and transphobia (challenged)
I just saw the wonderful cover of this book and the author, and didn’t even bother with the synopsis before requesting the advance copy. Because gothic horror is not my thing at all and the author’s fierce and unbridled writing makes for an unforgettable but difficult read.
The writing is truly gorgeous right from the get go. Despite the difficulty of the subject matter, I was engrossed completely and didn’t wanna put it down at all. The author perfectly captures the unforgiving atmosphere of the woods as well as the dread that follows Vern in the form of the far reaches of the cult Cainland she is escaping. There are also lots of horrifying and unexpected twists and turns, which kept me on my toes, always wondering what was gonna happen next. But the ending did feel quite different from the rest of the book and I still don’t know how I feel about it.
Through Vern’s harrowing struggle for survival with her two little boys, the author explores many themes like identity, motherhood, gender, sexuality, misogyny, race, and what it means to crave connections – either with humans or the nature. At the same time, the author also shows a mirror to the darkest parts of American history, especially how the exploitation and experimentation of Black bodies forms one of the major sources of progress for this country.
The writing is very straightforward, giving us unflinching truths through Vern who doesn’t know any pretense and is full of rage and grief. Her kids Feral and Howling literally grow up in the wild without knowing other humans but they are sharp and tough, with lots of love for their mother even if their relationship doesn’t feel very conventional in societal terms. Gogo and Bridget are great side characters, full of compassion and caring, who finally show that there is still some hope left in this cruel world. On the opposite spectrum, we get to see some of the members of Cainland and experience the horrific results when naked ambition for power at the cost of humans meets religious fanaticism and misogynistic entitlement.
To conclude, this is not a book for everyone and I’m not even sure to whom I can recommend it. Pick it up if you are ready for stunning atmospheric writing, an unflinching look at history which is also very much relevant to our contemporary times, and a group of characters who may be on the fringes of society, but their capacity for survival and love is boundless.