The Roanoke Girls, by Amy Engel, is a darkly disturbing story set in and around Osage Flats, a small town in Kansas, America. Roanoke is a rambling farmhouse a few miles outside of the town that has been added to over the years giving it a bizarrely gothic feel. The wealthy family who own it and much of the surrounding land have lived there for generations. Its comfort and isolation have been an aid to their lifestyle.
Much of the tale is told from the point of view of Lane who moves to Roanoke from New York when she is fifteen years old following her mother’s suicide. She and her mother, Camilla, had a toxic relationship so she feels little grief at her death. She is aware that Camilla was raised at Roanoke but has not been told further details of the family history.
Underage and alone, Lane has little choice but to comply when her maternal grandparents offer to take her in. She is eagerly welcomed to Roanoke by her cousin, Allegra, who is of a similar age and possesses similar traits. Allegra’s mother, Eleanor, ran away just after she had given birth and has neither been seen nor heard from since. When Lane is shown old family photographs she realises that Eleanor looked just like Camilla. They had another sister, Emmeline, who died as a baby. The previous generation endured similar fates.
‘Hearing their stories turned the faces in front of me from beautiful to tragic. They watched me now with haunted eyes. The only one left was Allegra. And me. I suddenly didn’t want a place on the wall. “Wow,” I said, goose bumps sprouting along my neck, even in the closed-in heat of the hall. “That’s a lot of dead girls.” Allegra did a quick pirouette away from me, her smile a little too wide. “Roanoke girls never last long around here.” […] “In the end, we either run or we die.”‘
To the outside world it would appear that these girls have it all. They are beautiful, wealthy, and allowed to live much as they please. Lane has never known love so is drawn to her doting grandfather who willingly provides whatever she desires. Her grandmother remains more distant.
The story unfolds over two time periods – that first long hot summer during which Lane discovers why the Roanoke girls consider themselves special, and another summer a decade later when she is forced to return to the farm because Allegra has gone missing. It is clear that although Lane may have escaped she still carries the mental scars of the family secret. The details of this are revealed to the reader early on, but the devastating effect on each of three generations of Roanoke girls is more gradually peeled away.
Although repellent to consider in places the narrative deals sensitively with the issues explored. There is a sinister undercurrent that had me anxious to know what was to happen next, fearful of what would be revealed. The tension never lets up as Lane seeks answers to her cousin’s disappearance.
This is not a story for the faint-hearted. It is tightly constructed and stunningly written but broaches topics few lay bare despite knowing they exist. The sex, drugs and small town thinking are mere backdrops to the damaging impact on all who attempt to breach the brittle Roanoke family circle.
A remarkable story that I recommend to any willing to dare. This is an electric read.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Hodder and Stoughton.