Rafeeq O.'s Reviews > The Familiar Dark

The Familiar Dark by Amy Engel
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it was amazing

Amy Engel's 2020 The Familiar Dark is a gritty 5-star novel of loss and strength and vengeance. Twelve-year-old Junie, daughter of protagonist Eve Taggert, and her friend Izzy die in the very first two pages of the book, their throats slit in the corner of a park, with someone "stroking her hair" and telling Junie, "Shhh... It'll be over soon. Shhh..." (2020 Hodder printing, page 2). That initial chapter, before the chapter numbered "One," is called "The End"; it is the end of two girls' lives and the end of Eve's attempt at normalcy.

Eve grew up dirt-poor in a run-down trailer "nestled in the armpit of the Ozarks" (page 9), in the Missouri podunk of Barren Springs, with her drug-addict mother and Eve's staunchly protective older brother, Cal. Their mother was hot-tempered and unpredictable and feared, not just feared by the children--if Cal was "beaten...to a pulp" for letting another boy steal his hat (page 150), for example, or if seven-year-old Eve had a white-hot meth-cooking spoon pressed to the back of her hand for "whining," they "had it coming" (page 137)--but also feared by the townspeople, who knew not to meddle or ask questions. The woods and "hollers" are full of places to hide a body, after all, and if the elder Taggert, who when the novel opens is "forty-seven now, but look[s] sixty" (page 36), tells someone that "if [he] ever went too far, she'd use [his] dick for fish bait" (page 164), this is not taken as mere colorful language.

There was no storybook prince for Eve, only the quickie after her shift at the diner, which left her pregnant at seventeen. One thing Eve knew, though, was that she would never end up like her mother. She may have fallen in for a while with an abusive lowlife, and to get Jimmy Ray away she may have had to give crooked Sheriff Land a favor in the front seat of his car that left "a swirl of bitterness and shame in the back of [her] throat," a "taste [that] never went away" (page 84), but when Junie was born, Eve stopped smoking, stopped drinking, and stopped mouthing off, following "an unwritten list of rules" (page 53) she made for herself. And after her mother had "shown up at the hospital, drunk and smelling of sex, when Junie was only a day old" and "[r]ant[ed] loud enough that security had come to escort her away" (page 136), Eve cut all ties with the older woman, forbidding her from seeing her only granddaughter.

Once the girl that was the focus of Eve's very life was killed, though...well, now the "familiar dark" may need to return. Although Barren Springs is not the kind of place where a woman would have to change her own flat tire in the rain as car after car passes without stopping (page 100), and although it abounds in natural beauty, it also is a place of poverty, danger, and casual cruelty. "[T]he world could be a nasty, festering place" (page 47), and Eve's mother, after a rare flash of understanding and tenderness that surprises Eve and makes her cry, admonishes the mother of the dead girl, "The time for bawling and feeling sorry for yourself is over. .... You're made of stronger stuff than that. You find him, Eve. Whoever did this. You find him. And you make him pay" (page 41).

Engel's first-person narrative, able to be as hard-bitten as that of any 1940s pulp detective novel or to depict the ache of maternal love and its accompanying loss and despair, reveals a protagonist trying to escape from both endpoints of the stereotyped female equation. "Truth is," Eve tells us, "there's no good way to navigate being female in this world," because there is no clearly understood role between that of "a bitch and a harpy" who "speaks out" and "say[s] no" and that of "[a]n easy mark" who "smile[s], say[s] yes, survive[s] on politeness,...weak and desperate" (page 143). Perhaps.

But with nothing left to lose, and no need to be the role model she has attempted to be for the previous twelve years, Eve at last can fulfill the vow made by her own awful mother, which is revealed in the final chapter, the one after "Twenty-Five" called "The Beginning": "[N]o daughter of hers was going to surrender. No daughter of hers was going to lie down and take it. Not if she ha[s] anything to say about it" (page 236). Eve will push and prod and question. During a perilous nighttime prowl in a local drug lord's territory, when hearing "something slink[ing] through the underbrush" she simply stomps more loudly, because she had "grown up in these woods," and "[n]othing out here would hurt [her] without a fair fight" (pages 156-57). And after all the abuse, she herself can fight now, too, finally kneeing an attacker's testicles "fast and hard" and "slamming" her foot "into his nose with an audible crunch," leaving the thing "sitting sideways on his face" (pages 162-63). But that is nothing compared to what she intends for her daughter's killer...

Almost nothing can be said of the plot, really, without giving away some truly nice twists and turns. Suffice it to say, then, that Amy Engel's The Familiar Dark, told by thirty-one-year-old single mother whose farthest travel was "to Branson once, years ago, for a day" (page 99) but whose sometimes-sharp-edged, sometimes-introspective prose reveals a hard-earned wealth of knowledge about love and loss and the nature of the human animal, is very well worth the read.

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Reading Progress

August 23, 2020 – Started Reading
August 25, 2020 – Finished Reading
August 26, 2020 – Shelved

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