I know the policy says I don’t give trigger warnings, but there’s no clue in the title and some people might just wish there had been, so this intro is like an exception to that rule. The novel being reviewed involves themes of rape, torture, and the PTSD aftermath. In an interview printed in the back of my copy, the author explains that, “I followed the cases of abducted women long after the initial news stories: Elisabeth Fritzl, Jaycee Lee Dugard, Sabine Dardenne, and Elizabeth Smart, just to name a few.” That makes for some intense and potentially trigger-y reading in the novel, and may make my review, for various reasons, equally hard to read.
I will add that some of the themes felt very personal to me, not in terms of directly analogous experiences, but in terms of emotions and fears (some of which stem from other types of experiences). This isn’t going to be a typical book review, because I intend to talk about those from the perspectives of sexual identity and of my personal past, the details of which I do not intend to discuss except to say it’s probably not as bad as you might imagine (especially given the extremes covered in the novel), but bad enough to have long-term emotional consequences.
Review follows after a short interlude (please bear in mind, I don’t often write reviews of things I disliked, because I don’t usually finish reading them, so I did like this book, despite how I start):
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For reference, the edition I have is the WHSmith edition in collaboration with the Richard And Judy Book Club. It includes a brief interview with the author, and a short list of discussion questions.
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I’ll get the train crash part of this novel out of the way first, which is the representation of BDSM. I call it a “train crash” because that’s how it felt emotionally to me when I realised where the text was heading and as the scene unfolded. I grew up with only negative representations of D/s and SM and Zan’s representation keyed directly into the old anguish that they caused. In some ways, I’m just leaping on this as a way of talking about those issues in general.
As mentioned in the intro, the novel centres on a survivor of kidnap, rape and torture. Halfway through, it comes up that the perpetrator used a SM club as cover. In terms of the plot and how it unfolds, I could see no reason for an SM club to be there, so I don’t know why Zan did it except the old kinkphobic tropes made it seem “obvious” to include it. If the text was supposed to distinguish between consensual BDSM and abuse, then sadly I think it fails spectacularly. Here’s why:
The impression I had was that Zan had typed “BDSM community” into Google and used the first page of results as her “research”. Despite introducing a character who’s a social sciences researcher (who had once been research assistant to the perpetrator) “investigating” the BDSM community through participation in the Scene, there’s no evidence that Zan knows anything about the real researchers who have done such work. I’m thinking primarily of Staci Newmahr’s work (described in her book, “Playing On The Edge”), since the fictional researcher’s story (apart from the whole “worked in the same college department as a serial rapist-torturer-killer” part of it) seemed initially to echo the research path that Newmahr followed in terms of the depth of involvement. Even the obligatory references to safewords and consent seemed like Zan read the phrases on the internet. Another phrase thrown in without any obvious understanding but seemingly there just to imply “authenticity” was TPE, or “Total Power Exchange”. If anything, that was the one that most strongly left me feeling like Zan used Google and not much else.
Zan has her single representative BDSM character explain how the perpetrator was expelled from the club for violating the Safe, Sane, Consensual principles. Sadly, this representative BDSM character is a male “Master”, and his “Slave” turns out to be the victim of one of those incidents – but she is not allowed to speak for herself, because he forbids it. The “telling” part of the scene is that he’s a good Dom who cares for her and helps her heal from the psychological trauma, but the “show” is that he keeps her entirely subservient, hooded, and forbids her to speak for herself except to describe the detail of her abuse at the hands of the perpetrator. While I can appreciate that in real life, that may very well be the right approach to supporting some people, I know that it is not the only approach and feel frustrated and alienated at the deeply stereotypical representation of power exchange that results.
The “deeply stereotypical” complaint extends to the whole of Zan’s fictional club. Now, I don’t know what the Scene is like in the USA, and certainly not in what appears to be a more rural part of Oregon, so maybe Zan really did go to a SM club in the region where she’s set her story, and it really was the way she describes it in her novel. All I know is that it doesn’t sound much like what I’ve experienced, in what might be called “Semi-rural Southern UK”. All the same, the novel is written in first-person and from the POV of someone who knows nothing about kink. So I thought about the description in my novel of a SM club, which is told by a kinky person, and then tried to think whether the scene in my novel might have a similar description if the person didn’t know about BDSM before visiting. Here’s a snippet from The Never List:
This place was a vision of hell to me, all red and black, packed with a crowd geared out in studded leather who seemed, beyond any other terror, utterly unpredictable. The music was crushingly loud, and the air above the bar hung heavy with cigarette smoke. “Slaves” hung back behind their masters, heads down, cowering. I had to wonder if they were here voluntarily or if they were just brought out for play.
Along the far wall was a T-shaped stage, and a girl in a full-body leather suit with a ball tied in her mouth was doing something I supposed had a distant relationship to dancing but seemed more like alternating poses of pain and ecstasy.
I’ll be honest, with the exception of the costumes, that sounds very much like how I experienced nightclubs back when I went to them while at university (including the person doing weird “distant relationship to dancing”, although again, not the same costume). And nothing at all like what I saw and experienced at the SM club I visited. For one thing, dress code is usually much more lax and for some clubs, “all black” will usually get you in. (At the club I visited, “nude” was also acceptable, and everything in between as long as it was black and/or had a kink/fetish theme.) So the researcher’s earlier warning to the Lead when setting up the visit: “It’s important to blend in there. The last thing we’d want to do is stand out in this crowd. And I guarantee you don’t own anything appropriate for this venue,” seems really rather overblown and unnecessary. Mostly because there’s no reason to be afraid of standing out because BDSMers tend to be really friendly and welcoming of newbies (although some tend to be rather too “welcoming” of attractive female newbies). A regular nightclub was almost as alien to me as the SM club is to Zan’s Lead character. Incidentally, the SM club I visited had music but it was background music, quiet to make communication during scenes and during conversations on the sidelines easier. I am left to wonder if her version of an SM club is more influenced by this period, described on her website biography page: “She used the money wisely, travelling to New Orleans on the weekends to hit the club scene, almost always in silver-sequined costume, surrounded by transvestites, Goth kids and her gay male entourage.” [Edit to add: it also reflected the depiction in the CSI episode that introduced Lady Heather, which I also disliked for the “nightclub with extra leather” stereotype portrayal.]
Zan goes on to describe, “carefully constructed scenes of torment that filled the space: machines, contraptions of agony were in use everywhere, with elaborate ropes and pulleys, chains and spikes, nodes and wires.” Apart from I can’t imagine any responsible club owner allowing spikes (the risk of drawing blood, and the contamination risks that entails, would surely be a key factor!) I suppose a room with a pillory, St Andrew’s cross, bondage horse, and one or two other devices, might appear to be full of “carefully constructed scenes of torment”, and maybe a bigger venue (such as the one implied in the novel) with more equipment might appear more so. I can imagine the costumes of leather, or corsets, or nudity, seeming strange, overwhelming, maybe even threatening.
What I can’t imagine is a visitor seeing, “slaves hung back behind their masters, heads down, cowering”. Nope, never happened. The Subs and bottoms I saw were often the most garrulous people in the place (and I, being shy and introverted, was a Master with Slave in tow, and one of the quietest and most timid people). Everyone was cheerful and smiling. Even when Subs (whom the uninitiated might have assumed were slaves) “hung back behind their masters”, there was not even a hint of heads bowing or people cowering. Indeed, if I did see that I would be pretty freaked out by it (read the link below). Maybe the Scene in the USA is really that different, and those are the norms over there, but if so, I’m glad I’m not. The other thing is that there are no male bottoms – whether Sub, Slave or just Bottom – in the representation. I recall seeing many men presenting as bottom, although less often playing, at the club I visited. The only reference is when three stage hands wearing hoods appear to set up the next act.
So my complaint is that Zan pays lip service to the consensual reality of BDSM, but when it comes to the “show” part of writing, her representation is full of the same old negatives and gender-bias in orientation. While she doesn’t directly equate BDSM with abuse (only by association), the language of alienness and scariness, of otherness, is what rings in my figurative ears when I read these passages. One case not in Zan’s list (presumably, too recent to be relevant to her “long after the initial news stories”) was Ariel Castro’s victims: Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus and Michelle Knight. To sum up why Zan’s inclusion of BDSM in the way she did is problematic, I can link to a piece by Yingtai @ The University of Abject Submission that does mention that case:
Our future tops were out there too, seeing Ariel Castro in the mirror, assaulted by this question: What makes me different from him?
What answers did we leave for them to find? What answers did we make for ourselves?
People did write about it, but most of them were not kinksters. They’ve read Fifty Shades, they know we’re not like that. But for some of our heirs, those reassurances will be empty, because only we know what it feels like from inside.
Ethical sadists don’t want to damage their partners. Look how much thought they put into protecting us. And sane masochists are nearly as cautious. Only psychopaths let their appetites run amok.
Yingtai is right: that question plagues me, certainly, and yet I know, or should know, that I put that much work into protecting a partner and that proves it – the fact that the question bothers me is proof. that I’m not like that.
Yes, Zan tells the reader that we’re different, but she shows that we are also to be feared. She shows a world in which subservience is not celebrated and enjoyed cheerfully, but is abject and dejected (in a way that, despite the title, the University of Abject Submission is not!) Nobody in her SM club seems to smile, or to enjoy what they’re doing, which is the opposite of what I know.
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Okay, so now you know what upset me about The Never List.
On to the rest of the book:
The Never List is Koethi Zan’s first novel. The title comes from the set-up, which is that the Lead (Sarah, a.k.a. Caroline) as a teen wrote a list with her best friend (Jennifer) of all the things you must never do, in order to stay safe from Bad Things happening to you. But once captured by the villain (Jack Derber), she reflects that, “We hadn’t believed other minds could be as calculating as ours. We hadn’t counted on actual evil as our enemy rather than blind statistical possibility.”
(As a quick aside, that is also the reason why “don’t get raped” messages are really not worthwhile and end up only strengthening the myths that allow rapists to go free even when they are brought to trial.)
The concept of a “Never List”, while not as clearly or directly formed as it is in the novel, has echoes in my own mentality. I don’t like to admit it but I can be a pretty fearful creature and anticipate improbable bad things happening to me and try to be ready to avoid or counter them when they do. (For reasons, being bulky and male-bodied doesn’t figure into my perception of how at-risk I am.) When I read thrillers, or watch movies, I picture myself as the victims: “How would I avoid this situation? Could I survive it if I found myself there? How would I do so? What would I feel, and could I handle it?” As a result, I have a version of a Never List which is more like an “Action-on List”. I sometimes joke about it, “What would I do in the zombie apocalypse?” but it’s ever-present. I don’t walk across darkened spaces, at least, not without a torch that I use to scan all around. I always sit facing the door so I can see what’s coming. I hate having someone be just behind me. I have my own Never List.
Sarah’s capture and captivity is told in flashback. Jennifer is captured with her but disappears from their prison. Jack torments Sarah with tales of Jennifer’s death. The main story takes place thirteen years later – ten years after Sarah escapes and brings rescue for her fellow captives. With Jack up for parole, Sarah feels she must find Jennifer’s body in order to prove Jack is a murderer and thus ensure he isn’t released to renew his tormenting of young women, especially her and her fellow survivors.
What follows is a powerful tale of an agoraphobic PTSD sufferer pushing her limits and simultaneously attempting to be an amateur sleuth (which included contacting that researcher and visiting the SM club). Zan brings to life Sarah’s challenges and her triumphs, and little details harking back to the precautions and “Never List” mentality keep the character and her past constantly in focus without intruding onto the reader’s journey through the narrative. They provide the lens through which Sarah sees the world, making her present seem all the more vivid. The web of clues and crises seems inexorable (except, as previously mentioned, the whole BDSM element, which seemed unnecessary).
The psychological story is better handled than the action-adventure (here’s a point for a Never List: “Never go into a villain’s lair without posting a look-out” – amateur-sleuth Sarah, with her allies in tow, keeps doing this and paying for it) but the sleuthery unfolds well enough, along with the eerie sense that Jack is still somehow pulling the strings and manipulating everyone. There is also a sense that something is hidden in the flashback scenes as Sarah recalls her captivity – a shift in the relationship between her and her fellow captives hints at something else in the history.
The detective story, the psychological drama, and the truth about the last few months of captivity all come together in a huge finale. The effect is skilfully put together, but I have one complaint. I guessed early on what the big twist was going to be. Although I guessed it, I was never entirely sure of my conclusion and I think it takes great skill to maintain that doubt when someone guesses your trick. However, not far from the end Zan put in a scene that specifically ruled out that possibility and left me anxious to find out what the real answer was. The big reveal was that my original guess WAS correct, and that Sarah had just been misremembering or misinterpreting events. Without that “ruled-it-out” scene, I would have been delighted at the reveal because I had been kept guessing and second-guessing myself all the way along. But with it, I felt cheated and conned. While it was certainly believable that Sarah would have misunderstood or misremembered that scene, as a reader it felt like the author’s dishonesty. I reflected that, had the story been told in third-person, with Sarah describing the scene to a detective instead of as the first-person narrator of the novel, then I would have been much less bothered by that shift. It’s because her account has to perform two roles: “Sarah tells her story” and “Novel’s narrator” that the sense of deception (rather than misremembered/misinterpreted events) arises.
Misremembering, or perhaps, choosing not to remember, plays a key part in the psychological reveal as to what caused the shift in relationships between the captives. One of her fellow captives, as the climax builds, finally reflects back to her the truth that Sarah herself couldn’t tell or recall until that point. In the discussion questions in the back the point is raised, “The novel explores what people will do to survive – how clear are the boundaries of good and evil in the novel?” The reveal of what really happened perhaps challenges that more than any other point, and that (of course) is why Sarah refused to remember it. Exceptional reveal and emotional moment.
In conclusion, Koethi Zan shows great skill with her first novel, and I am sure I will remember her name if I see it in future. The story is powerfully crafted and deals with challenging topics, including our own self-perception and self-justification as well as evil and vulnerability. As discussed at great length, I felt alienated by Zan’s representation of BDSM, including recalling the worst fears of what my sexuality meant about me. Partly that’s to do with stereotypical portrayals and partly it’s to do with my own emotional issues, so despite the number of words I spent on it, I’m not willing to be angry about it.
Other than that sore point re: BDSM, and what felt like a misstep regarding the big twist, I feel that there is a lot to recommend about The Never List, if you like tense psychological thrillers with sprinklings of decently-written action-adventure.