The Never List

By Koethi Zan

Viking | 2013 | 303 pages

Reviewed by Janet Garber

Coeds in the Cellar

Koethi Zan, a former entertainment lawyer and first-time novelist, gives us a ripped-from-the-headlines story of abducted young women held captive and tortured, some trafficked, some killed.  The novel is very topical and, unfortunately, very realistic in its premise, and told from the point of view of an abductee who managed to escape ten years before.  As the action opens, she learns that hiding in her apartment will not keep the world out – her tormentor is up for parole.

Unanswered questions, the investigative fumbling of the FBI, the search for the body of her close friend all push her to conquer her agoraphobia and post-traumatic stress symptoms and re-enter the world to do some of her own investigation.

She reunites with two of the other women who shared the cellar with her, all wounded and hostile to each other, and they embark on a quest to find further proof of evil doings that will ensure the kidnapper is locked up for eternity.

The chase is gripping and the reader is filled with a sense of dread every time they venture into a dark building – at night – or follow thuggish men – on backwoods roads – without a flashlight!  Some of these scenes frankly stretch the reader’s credibility.  I mean, c’mon, we wouldn’t attempt these things (but then again,  we haven’t lived through their traumas!)  Similar to our reactions to horror films, we’re often on the edge of our seats, ready to scream, “Look behind you!  Don’t go down those stairs!  Get out of that house – now!”

Zan flashes back and forth from the present to the captivity ten years before, giving us some indication of how the women were brought upstairs for torture sessions, how they turned against each other at times, how they reverted to animal self-preservation tactics.

She spares us all details of the actual torture, simply repeating that there was a lot of pain, they were starved and bruised, one was confined to a coffin-like box. Strangely enough, though the reader’s initial response is of deep relief at not suffering through the actual torture scenes with the victims, the ultimate effect of not revealing more details is that the torture becomes something theoretical.  We are robbed of drama.

There are twists and turns in the plots, enough to make it interesting, and a last line to hint that maybe the main character is ready to start living the life she would have been living all along as a healthy 30 year old woman – that FBI guy is kinda cute!

This book is part of a new genre featuring young victimized heroines regaining their lives after years of untimely interruption by evil psychopaths – we wish it was not based on stories like that of Amanda Berry, Gina de Jesus and Michelle Knight, all rescued recently in Cleveland.

One of these books, Room by Emma Donoghue, concerns itself with a young girl and her son born in captivity and their eventual escape.  Though it too spares the reader the gruesome details of sexual abuse, it is rich in detail about the survival techniques employed by the young mother, especially her enormous creativity in fashioning an almost-livable daily existence for her child. 

She painstakingly portrays the long difficult road to some simulacrum of normalcy, particularly for a child who has never seen another human being other than his mother and never been outside the Room.

Psychologically, this plot rings more true to life than that of the hastily-recovered, uber-functioning heroine of The Never List.  But, in any case, both novels focus our attention on “the evil that men [and women] do” and the tragic repercussions on the lives of young women.

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