The creepiest book of 2020: Part IV

ReadingRoom has devoted all week to the biggest-selling book in New Zealand right now, In The Clearing, a brilliant thriller by Ngāpuhi author JP Pomare, based on creepy Australian cult The Family. We conclude the series with a review by Bill Ralston.

JP Pomare's second novel In The Clearing is the best thriller produced by a Kiwi author since JP Pomare’s debut novel Call Me Evie. Read both - you're in for a treat.

In the Clearing begins with a straightforward scenario. Amy is a troubled young girl growing up in a sadistic cult sited in an isolated clearing far out in the bush. Freya is a solo mum with a young boy living in the country an hour out of Melbourne.

But it's almost impossible to say anything more about the plot without plastering “Spoiler Alert!” all over this review. Pomare has constructed an extremely delicate house of cards. If I pull one out to better explain the story to you, the whole pack will collapse and you won't enjoy it as much. It's the series of twisted revelations that drives this book.

What can I say? Okay, housewife Freya is the central thread of the whole plot, but as much as she strives to be normal the weirder everything gets and, by the way, little Amy is a sick puppy.

This is a psychological thriller. Pomare messes with your mind every few pages. None of the characters have an identity that remains true as you make your way through the shifting scree of the story. For example, most of the key protagonists have two names and you only realise, after several chapters following two of the characters that one is, or once was, actually also the other person.

Like with Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, as a reader you form an opinion on the guilt or innocence of a character - only to have to completely revise your thoughts as the narrative twists, turns and circles back a few days, months or decades.

Actually, In the Clearing is a psychological, crime, mystery, thriller. The crimes include kidnapping, murder, torture and child abuse. The mystery is trying to figure out what has gone on, what is going on and what the hell is going to happen next.

Beware of investing too much empathy in any one character. The chances are, by the end of the book, you will probably consider them an utter and complete bastard. Similarly, take care not to automatically bestow ‘bad guy’ status on anyone (whatever the urging from Pomare) because, again by the end page, you may have to change that opinion.

It's a great book. You excitedly follow every twist and turn, slap yourself on the forehead with sudden realisation, and then, finally, comes the cruelest twist of all and your head gets another wallop.

I read the book in a day and then promptly went back and read it again, marvelling at Pomare’s dexterity in toying with my emotions, assumptions and expectations. The cult from In the Clearing is clearly modelled on a real one in Australia, The Family. Reading news stories about The Family shows you how Pomare has cleverly adapted some of the real-life threads to his fictitious evil cult.

Because the book is set in rural Victoria, running through the story are frequent references to the danger of bush fires, all the more apt because the plot itself is like a bush fire. It begins with one small flame that flares into a huge conflagration that consumes families and engulfs lives.

Pomare was raised on a farm near Maketu on the Bay of Plenty coast and now lives in Melbourne. No doubt, like Phar Lap and the exquisite lamington, the Aussies will try and steal him from us, too, but he's ours.

In the Clearing by JP Pomare (Hachette, $34.99).

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