Fiction – Kindle edition; Hodder; 336 pages; 2020.
JP Pomare’s In The Clearing is a psychological suspense novel that poses the question: what would life be like if you grew up in a cult but escaped it as an adult? How would your life return to normal if you did not know what normal was like? And would you be forever looking over your shoulder, wondering if members of the cult were out to get you?
Inspired by a notorious cult
Taking elements of the real-life notorious 1980s Australian cult The Family — in which Anne Hamilton-Byrne, the enigmatic female leader, convinced followers she was the reincarnation of Jesus Christ and “stole” children to groom in her own image — Pomare spins a compelling tale about what happens when a cult member escapes to reinvent herself on the outside.
The suspense-filled story weaves two separate narrative threads together that eventually collide in an unexpected and thrilling climax — albeit one I guessed fairly early on.
In the first storyline, Amy is a young teenage member of the cult, known as “The Clearing”, who is in charge of looking after a new, recently kidnapped member to ensure she adapts to the group’s ideals. Food is in short supply, abuse (psychological, physical and sexual) is rife and anyone who steps out of line is subject to “realignment” therapy.
The second focuses on Freya, a single mother living on an isolated farm, who has a fortress-like mentality and is deeply concerned about a young couple in a van trespassing on her property. She is paranoid enough to own a big dog trained to attack on command and have several panic buttons installed in her home.
As the tale of these two separate female characters unfold we learn more about them and begin to understand that not all is at it seems and that neither is particularly reliable. Freya, for instance, has a troubled past in which she was accused of having done something terrible to her young son, Aspen, who was “lost” more than a decade ago and has never been found. When her second son, Billy, goes missing the authorities assume history is merely repeating itself — but is it?
There are plenty of red herrings in this book and lots of potential culprits — could Aspen’s father, recently returned on the scene, be responsible for Billy’s disappearance, or could it be a mysterious man from Freya’s past who has just been released from jail? Why is her best friend a police detective? And how does her brother fit into the grand scheme of things?
In the Clearing is fast-paced, as you would expect from a thriller, but it’s not at the expense of detail — Pomare’s descriptions of the bush and small communities, for instance, are vivid and often beautifully evoked. The real strength of the novel, however, lies in the author’s ability to tap into our deepest psychological fears, which helps to ratchet up the tension. You really do fear for the wellbeing and safety of both Freya and Amy as you become immersed in their unconventional lives.
But the book isn’t just a page-turner. There’s an intelligence at work here, too, and it’s clear Pomare has done a lot of research about cults, the ways in which they use blackmail and brainwashing to indoctrinate people, and how difficult it is to be “de-programmed” once you escape. There’s a lot to cogitate on.
Admittedly, I saw the “twist” at the end coming a mile off, but from all the many Amazon and GoodReads reviews I’ve seen online, it seems to catch most people totally unaware, adding to its popularity. It’s been a best seller across the world.
Finally, if you want to know more about The Family, the cult that inspired this story, I recommend an excellent non-fiction book, ‘The Family’ by Chris Johnston and Rosie Jones, which I reviewed in 2016. There’s a BBC4 Storyville documentary, The Cult that Stole Children — Inside The Family, to accompany the book, which was recently on iView in Australia and which has previously been screened in the UK on BBC4. It is worth watching if you can track it down.
About the author¹: J.P. Pomare is an award-winning writer who has had work published in journals including Meanjin, Kill Your Darlings, Takahe and Mascara Literary Review. He has hosted the On Writing podcast since 2015 featuring bestselling authors from around the globe. His first novel, Call Me Evie, was critically acclaimed and won the Ngaio Marsh Award for Best First Novel. He was born in New Zealand and resides in Melbourne with his wife and daughter. (1. Source: Hachette Australia website.)
Where to buy: Widely available in most territories.
This is my 5th book for #SouthernCrossCrime2021 which I am hosting on this blog between 1st March and 31st March. To find out more, including how to take part and to record what you have read, please click here.
It is also my 7th for #TBR21 in which I’m planning to read 21 books from my TBR between 1 January and 31 May 2021. I purchased it on Kindle in June last year.