‘Intricate characterisation, stunning landscapes and a haunting plot’ – Forgetting Zoe by Ray Robinson

It’s 1999, and in an isolated ranch house in the Arizona desert, nineteen year-old Thurman Hayes has murdered his abusive, bullying father.  When his mother dies soon afterward, Thurman’s left alone, longing for company and mourning his mother, but full of hatred – for himself, for his sexual urges and for women.  He sets out to trace his mother’s Canadian roots and ends up on a tiny island off the coast of Newfoundland where he meets ten year-old loner, Zoe Nielson.  When Zoe doesn’t turn up at school, the press and the other islanders point their fingers at her mother, Ingrid.  Although sightings of Zoe are reported from around the world, soon only Ingrid clings to the belief that her child is still alive – but the pressure of waiting for a reunion grows worse and worse as time passes and Ingrid starts to despair.  Meanwhile, Zoe is held captive in Thurman’s underground bunker and her world is reduced to fulfilling his needs in order to stay alive.  Years pass – will Zoe ever return home, and will the outside world have forgotten her?   

Well, without giving away more of the plot, it’s clear that it’s not an uplifting novel.  But is it any good?  It’s easy for an emotionally hard-hitting story like this one to fall into easy cliché, to tug on the readers’ heartstrings without moving beyond newsreel cliché or stereotype.  In this case, though, Robinson’s pulled it off – not only are Zoe and Ingrid’s stories vivid and compelling, but so is Thurman’s – the murdering, kidnapping rapist definitely managed to inspire understanding, if not sympathy, in this reader.  It’s not a million miles from Fowles’ The Collector, in that sense, though it’s far more graphic and the narrative is more fragmented as it swaps between Thurman, Zoe and Ingrid’s viewpoints.  Thurman’s need and misery, Zoe’s terror and, later, her normalization of her peculiar circumstances, and Ingrid’s loneliness and regret make for a rich stew of emotions and a very persuasive novel.

As well as the human leads, the two landscapes play central roles in Forgetting Zoe – Thurman’s Arizona home with its empty, sweeping desert and the weather-beaten Canadian island of Zoe’s birth are practically characters themselves, dominating the story and its language.  Like Annie Proulx’s fiction, reading this made me want to experience the settings for myself – the creosote brush and mesquite of the desert and the frozen crags of the island, the northern lights dancing in the skies above the icy waters.  The contrast between the two settings is extreme; Robsinon ran a slight risk here, I think, because the ultra-difference between the two places might have seemed a crude device in hammering home just how far away Zoe really is – but it doesn’t ever feel forced or artificial, and I attribute that to the author’s linguistic skill.  His language here (and throughout) is sumptuously evocative.  Even if you’re not inclined to read a novel about a kidnapping, this one is worth it for the richness of Robinson’s prose alone.  Here’s some snippets:  Thurman describes the August rains as ‘blood-red floods’, he says ‘chartreuse of mold’ climbed the walls of his house, and he doesn’t dress smartly – he gets ‘duded up’.  Ingrid says ‘the island was a heart and the waves its liquid pulse.’  Lovely.

The characters themselves are another triumph.  Ingrid’s failings as a parent and as a lover and her grief when Zoe disappears are really well-rendered – she’s neither a scapegoat nor an unadulterated victim.  Zoe as a young child is well-sketched – an independent and intelligent girl, her terror when she’s taken prisoner is really believable.  Then, as she spends her teenage years underground and enslaved, her only human contact her captor, a man whose name she doesn’t know but whose bed she must share, we see her as a strange half-adult- half-child hybrid, emotionally stunted and confused as she struggles to remember the outside world and to reconcile herself to her circumstances.  But it’s Thurman who’s the real success here.  A few brief chapters at the start set out his background – the repressed and abused mother, the violent father, and the lack of company and emotional or sexual outlets that lead him to force himself onto a series of helpless victims.  The combination of tenderness and brutality is both shocking and realistic.  The relationship that develops between Thurman and Zoe – his need for and hatred of her, and her fear of and protectiveness of him – is a fantastic dramatization of the captor/captive bong.  Remembering Zoe is an enthralling study of Stockholm Syndrome – we see how Zoe becomes reliant on Thurman, how she identifies with him, and though she recognizes the horror of his actions, she also wants to work things out with him, to stay with him, to forge a normal relationship with him. 

Any Cop?:  Absolutely.  Intricate characterisation, stunning landscapes and a haunting plot make this a real (if grim) page-turner.  Robinson was nominated for the Guardian Not The Booker Prize 2010 for this, and a well-deserved nomination it was, too.  I’ll be checking out his previous two novels, and you guys should get your hands on this quick-smart.

Valerie O’Riordan

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