Deceit in the Sunflower State
The first adult novel from Kansas City author Amy Engel
Review by Marcus Williams
Amy Engel’s The Roanoke Girls, her first novel for adults, is as gripping and emotional a ride as any in the young adult genre where the Kansas City author got her start. A modern-day take on the Southern gothic style, the book is as captivating as it is deeply unsettling.
Set in a small rural Kansas town, it would be easy to imagine it a place so quiet and self-contained that the return of a wealthy family’s prodigal daughter qualifies as legitimate news. Indeed, when a sudden family emergency beckons Lane Roanoke, our primary protagonist, back to the family homestead she’d abruptly abandoned eleven years prior, she returns to find that the more she thought that things changed in her life, the more they actually stayed the same. She’d left before, determined to bury her unsavory memories of Roanoke deep in her subconscious, but much to her chagrin, when she does begrudgingly have to come back, she returns to a place where time has, in effect, been standing still.
In The Roanoke Girls, things seldom are what they seem. Most notably, the namesake cousins of this novel know all-too-well the intimacies of the word “family,” but mostly in a warped, jaded sense of the word. With a time-hopping, character-to-character pace of storytelling that will be easily recognizable to anyone familiar with Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, Engel’s commentary through the eyes of Lane and other women in her family challenges many of the preconceived notions and perceptions about what familial love should and could mean to many different people, both readers and characters alike. While the Roanokes have the appearance of a normal well-kept, affluent family in a small town, something much more sinister bubbles just below the surface in a way that only those inside the family know. Unfortunately, they are far from the only people affected by the ripples of the events that unfold within the family.
Lane is hardly an entirely-sympathetic figure. Her story isn’t that of someone trying to escape a place in order to preserve a squeaky clean image as it is about mitigating the amount of damage that her name and presence can leave on those around her. It’s easy to understand how she becomes so prone to self-sabotage, but tough to excuse it, a fact that isn’t entirely lost on her. In fact, the novel is full of moments of introspection, such as this one on page 103: “I wipe tears from my cheeks with the palm of my hand, trying to forget who I am and where I came from. Trying to forget what it means to be me.” But the more and more that Lane comes to grips with her family’s dark heritage, the more she becomes a creature of impulse.
Trouble and tragedy haunt Lane and her fiery cousin Allegra as they try to come to palatable (though largely self-defeating) terms with their own places in the line of multiple generations of troubled women that share their last name. Their dark family secret informs every move the girls make, and neither spend much time fighting the current, self-preservation be damned. As Allegra says: “Roanoke girls never last long around here. In the end, we either run or we die.”
This sordid tale of betrayal, mischief and, ultimately, sadness, is no respecter of person; it leaves an indelible mark on every character it touches, from Allegra, victim of her own self-fulfilling prophecy, to Gran, the seemingly-innocent matriarch of the family, whose quiet tolerance ends up being gravely mistaken for tacit compliance; from Cooper Sullivan, Lane’s formerly-jilted lover with a tough-as-nails exterior but heart of gold, to Sarah, the woman heartbreakingly resolved to staying in a marriage to Allegra’s former flame knowing that his heart will never truly belong to her. No one (un)lucky enough to have contact with the Roanoke girls is safe from the side effects. Suspenseful from the very first page, The Roanoke Girls isn’t here to ask you to choose sides; that would be far too myopic. The scale of relative good versus unspeakable evil is merely a sliding one, and alliances are fluid for both the characters and readers. Trapped in many ways in both in legacy and location, our protagonists know that escape isn’t as simple as leaving. How ironic, then, that only by sticking around do the girls eventually realize, for better or worse, ways to finally transcend their lot in life.
It’s hard not to feel pulled in by the swirling tide of emotions from of this harrowing tale, and by the end, to desire escape or to want out — not because of exhaustion from reading, but for the solace in knowing that you can extricate yourself from the tapestry in a way that the characters are dying to do.