The Familiar Dark by Amy Engel

Reviewed by Rod McLary

The epigraph to this novel is the first lines of a poem by Emily Dickinson:

We grow accustomed to the Dark –

When Light is put away –

Dickinson is writing about the loss of a loved one and how she must now live her life in darkness.  This quote is apposite to this novel by Amy Engel which begins with the murder of two twelve-year-old girls – best friends – in a lonely and cold park in Barren Springs Missouri.  Junie – one of the girls – is the daughter of Eve who works as a waitress in the local diner and whose life is one continuing struggle to separate herself from her abusive mother and to create some kind of better life for Junie.

Barren Springs was first named by early settlers moving westward and, at the point of exhaustion, stopped at the promise of a spring near the Ozarks.  The spring was barren but the settlers had no inclination to continue.  Thus a small town of fewer than a thousand people grew from these unpropitious beginnings.  Most of the current population is poor and some are involved in drugs including Eve’s mother who raised two children – Eve and her older brother Caleb – largely while in a drug-fuelled state of anger and abuse.

Now Eve is facing life without Junie and is determined to find her daughter’s killer with or without the assistance of the local corrupt police.

To do so, she is forced to reconnect with a life she thought she had left behind and with her mother; a mother who ‘used us as punching bags.  All the times she smacked us around, forgot to feed us, told us we were worthless’ [113].  The author in almost an unrelenting but clear and honest manner describes that life and Eve’s attempts to leave and to stay away – but without apology and without seeking or wanting the reader’s sympathy.

Ultimately though, Eve is compelled to turn to her mother for help and by extension must then acknowledge to herself that there would be: ‘No pretending ever again that I was anything other than my mother’s daughter.  No better than her. No different.’ [212]

But the novel is also about grief – the kind as Eve says where ‘time slips away from you, minutes lost looking at the back of a blond child ahead of you on the sidewalk, seconds ticking past while you stand holding a fresh-from-the dryer T-shirt that your daughter once wore.  Brain blank and empty as a dark room’ [93].

These two themes underpin the novel – the unbreakable links we have with the past however much we wish to break away; and the overwhelming grief for a child who dies before his/her parent and especially one who dies by violence.

However, the novel is also a crime mystery and, on that level alone, it is successful.  There are twists and turns in the narrative which cannot be foreseen even by the most astute reader.  The tension is at times almost palpable as Eve edges closer and closer to identifying the killer.  

The author has crafted a dark and remorseless world of grinding poverty, family violence and abuse, and running beneath it all are drugs, alcohol and the sexual predation of women.  As Eve pursues the unknown killer, she finds – as Dickinson says in her poem – that she is walking away from the light and further into the darkness.

While sometimes confronting, this novel is an exciting read.  It is recommended to anyone who likes crime novels with attitude.

Amy Engel is a former criminal defence attorney living in Missouri.  This is her second adult novel and her first The Roanoke Girls was a best seller.

The Familiar Dark


by Amy Engel

Hachette Australia

ISBN 978 1 529 36808 6

236pp; $32.99

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