A gripping modern Midwestern Gothic about secrets, sexuality, disappearances, and a destructive, dynastic rule
Don’t be deceived by the cover design: there’s nothing rosy about The Roanoke Girls. Amy Engel’s novel is a gripping, modern Midwestern Gothic about secrets, sexuality, disappearances, and the destructive, dynastic rule of Yates Roanoke and his girls. The Roanoke Girls takes all those classic Gothic tropes and transposes them into a contemporary setting, with Roanoke, the ruined castle, at the centre: a rural Kansas farmhouse with an abundance of hallways, stairwells and framed photographs for the secrets to hide behind.
Like all good Gothic novels, secrets locked away for generations are at the heart of the story. Lane, one of the eponymous ‘Roanoke Girls’, returns to Roanoke for the first time since running away when she was sent to live there at sixteen after her mother’s suicide, summoned in the wake of her charming but troubled cousin, Allegra’s, disappearance. The past and present are woven together poignantly using two temporal perspectives – ‘then’ and ‘now’ – interspersed with chapters from the other ‘Girls’ as the secrets spill out. Whilst complex, the narrative has the texture of delicate lace, not clumsy knit, and nothing feels unnecessary – if it is a knit, it’s tight and intentional and intricate and twisted, in more ways than one.
Engel unfolds her mystery in gorgeous, gripping prose and metaphors that are unusual yet so uncomfortably, almost unbearably, alive. Turning the metonymy of horror on its head, rain lashing at the windows, howling wind and lightning overhead are reimagined – and the trope revitalised – as a searing summer heat that threatens to stifle the setting, Osage Flats, if the secrets don’t get there first. The novel reveals its hand early on, but this doesn’t spoil the suspense: the horror sticks to us like sweat on our foreheads, forcing us into the same position as Lane as she wrestles with ‘small-town suspicion’, how to respond to the revelations, and whether she, and we, should brace ourselves for more.
As such, the plot is less about the secret itself, and more about the devastating effect it has on Lane and the family’s lives and relationships; the horror feels real because the impact is as palpable as it is harrowing. Engel has real talent for making things feel tangible; her characters are all deftly crafted, flaws and all, and are equally damaged and damaging, dangerous and vulnerable, vengeful and forgiving, as seen in Lane’s childhood crush Cooper, with his rough hands and soft touch, Allegra’s besotted but suspicious ex-boyfriend Tommy, and ‘old coot’ Charlie, the farmhand who acts as both confidante and accomplice.
The only thing that isn’t alive are the ‘Girls’ themselves, but they haunt the novel’s halls as well as any Gothic ghost and fit interestingly into the Gothic ontology of women in distress, although none of them are fainting damsels. The Roanoke Girls bleeds from the same vein as The Virgin Suicides, it’s ‘a lot of dead girls’, after all, and Rebecca, as the mystery of a missing woman revolves and unfolds under one roof that’s dreamed of in the very first sentence; as both works nurtured the Gothic in the 20th century, Engel waters it again now: growing it into the Midwest, the post-modern, and, perhaps, the only remaining unmentionable. As for those roses on the cover, the epigraph over the page reveals their own secret: ‘look at this tangle of thorns’.