REVIEW: The Roanoke Girls by Amy Engel

The Roanoke Girls
by Amy Engel

My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars

Length: 279 pages

Release date: 7 March 2017

Amazon UK | Amazon US


The Roanoke girls seem to have it all. But there’s a dark truth about them which is never spoken. Every girl either runs away, or dies.

Lane is one of the lucky ones. When she was fifteen, over one long, hot summer at her grandparents’ estate in rural Kansas, she found out what it really means to be a Roanoke girl. Lane ran, far and fast. Until eleven years later, when her cousin Allegra goes missing – and Lane has no choice but to go back.

She is a Roanoke girl.

Is she strong enough to escape a second time?

Last Sunday, I was rushing through the airport bookstore’s limited selection. I had five minutes to pick a book to carry on my five-hour flight. The Roanoke Girls caught my eye from the display section, I skimmed the page-long prologue, and that was that. I’d seen the novel once before, at a much larger Waterstones, but set it back down after the blurb believing that it would be an over-sensationalised domestic thriller. Needless to say, I was wrong. Engel’s adult fiction debut is a captivating portrait of a fucked up family stuck in a cycle of abuse and the inner voice of its last descendant who attempts to break free.

I guessed the Roanoke “secret” within 10 pages, but that’s fine, because it was never meant to stay hidden. It’s explicitly revealed in Page 32. Which is a crucial decision that was made correctly, because attempting to hide something so obvious would have devolved into soap opera cringe material. Since it’s barely a spoiler, I’ll come right out and say the “secret” so that I can discuss it in this review: Yates Roanoke has groomed every Roanoke girl from his sister Jane to his daughter/granddaughter Allegra from pubescent age, such that half of the girls are products of incest, à la Craster from Game of Thrones. What makes this already dark premise even more disgusting is that the man actually believes there’s genuine love between him and all the girls. His manipulations lead to a few of their deaths and ruin the lives of the rest, and he doesn’t see anything wrong with it. *Gag.*

So no, The Roanoke Girls isn’t a fun beach read, but it’s beautifully and thoughtfully written. Seriously, I love Engel’s writing style, from the elegant descriptions of love and heartbreak to the unique mannerisms infused in each small-town character that make them distinctly real. You feel like you could know a Tommy, an Allegra, a Yates in real life–and that makes it all the more disturbing.

Every reader remembers wanting to tear their hair out at that one novel where there’s an amazing first chapter, then chapter two begins with “three years ago” and proceeds to kill off all the momentum and suspense built up previously. The Roanoke Girls is an example of the opposite, in which the device of alternating timelines is used to its full effect. The time jumps aren’t used as a crutch for shoddy plotting or as a way to infodump. Instead, the past and the present are equally well executed throughout the novel, the stakes rising in tandem to arrive at a climax alongside each other. It didn’t feel like 15-year-old Lane was any less nuanced or important as 25-year-old Lane, and the same applies for the supporting cast.

Speaking of Lane, there really are certain points in the novel where I hated her for treating the people around her so awfully. But all things considered, I think she’s played an admirable game with the hand she was dealt. I can’t imagine the resilience you’d need to live through that kind of family and survive, in one piece if not unscathed. Cooper, too, merits the same respect or more. As dysfunctional as it starts out, Lane and Cooper is one of the best love stories I’ve read lately. Maybe it’s because I’ve set the bar too low for myself by reading copious amounts of YA, but their progression was a breath of fresh air. By the end, I get the sense that when trouble arises (because it always does, a.k.a real life), this is a couple that’ll put in the blood, sweat and tears to work it out.

Personally, I’m a big fan of The Roanoke Girls, but I definitely see how it’s not for everyone. It lies on the atmospheric side of thrillers, and the plot can be described as a slow burn. The mystery of Allegra’s death isn’t particularly mysterious, and I give it a 50% chance that you’ll guess the culprit long before the abrupt chain of events in the last few chapters that lead to the revelation. However, as someone who usually prefers fast-paced stories and loved this one anyway, give it a try. You never know.

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