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The fight of their lives – ‘Survival Instincts’

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It might seem that writing a thriller is relatively easy. You could be forgiven for thinking so – there certainly are a fair number of them populating bookshelves out there. And there’s a tendency to underplay their merit, to consider them as somehow less than because of their subject matter.

Rest assured – writing a book, any book, is a monumental task. And writing a thriller that works, that puts the pieces together in a way that viscerally clicks? That takes real skill.

Skill like that possessed by Jen Waite.

Waite’s new book “Survival Instincts” (Dutton, $26) offers precisely the sort of well-crafted tension that we seek from a thriller. This story of three generations of women – daughter, mother, grandmother – isolated and endangered for reasons that none of them understand is engrossing and tightly paced. It captures the fear that springs from a danger that feels both predestined and utterly random while also engaging with the courage that comes from the desire to protect our own, no matter the cost.

A good thriller is a high-wire walk, one that requires an author to maintain complete control at all times. Finding the ideal balance between character and conflict requires both delicacy and bravado – and Waite pulls it off. We move from present to past and back, shifting perspectives from timeframe to timeframe and person to person, all in service to a chilling, haunting tale.

Anne lives in Vermont with her twelve-year-old daughter Thea. She’s a social worker and therapist, specializing in helping people deal with difficult and often toxic relationships. Anne’s mother Rose runs a bakery in the small town of Charlotte – where Anne grew up – and is still very much a part of Anne’s life. By all appearances, Anne’s is a happy, successful life. Sure, she worries about her mom working too hard and her daughter growing up a bit too fast, but all in all – pretty good.

But there are shadows in the past. Shadows that Anne struggles to escape, even as her present day looks bright.

Fourteen years ago, Anne met Thea’s father, a charming, successful man who nevertheless seemed to be hiding his own depths of darkness. Even as Anne eventually realized his sinister underpinnings, she still struggled to separate herself from him and escape the danger he posed to her and her family.

Those shadows from the past collide headlong with the dangers of the present when a weekend getaway to New Hampshire’s White Mountains turns into a struggle for survival. A deranged stranger takes the three women hostage during a hike in a nature preserve, taking them to an abandoned cabin where they must fight for their lives. Who he is, why he’s doing this – and why he’s doing it to them – all a mystery. Anne, Thea and Rose must battle through the fear of the past and the pain of the present if they’re to have any hope of having a future.

At the risk of delving into cliché, “Survival Instincts” is a page-turner. I hesitate to call it that, but there’s no denying that it has that immersive, propulsive quality. It’s a book that will resist your efforts to close it, that invites the reader to keep going to the next revelation. I read it cover to cover in an evening; you might find yourself in a similar boat (though I wouldn’t recommend doing it at night like I did – sleep was a little harder to come by with the book’s climax still echoing).

That compelling narrative is enhanced by the feelings of isolation that resonate throughout the book. The notion of being somehow separate from the world, whether figuratively or literally, contributes mightily to the book’s overall impact. Yes, we’re talking about being trapped alone in the woods, but it’s Waite’s ability to harness those feelings of emotional isolation born of betrayal – the shattering of trust between wife and husband or mother and daughter – that elevates this book into something truly terrifying.

Waite takes her time allowing the story to unfold, revealing the pieces of the puzzle with a deliberateness that leaves room for our own speculation as to what the final picture might look like. She deftly rations the twists and surprises, fully earning the story’s abrupt shifts and turns. The result is a deep satisfaction when the final frames click into place, showing us just how smart and sharply-crafted a thriller this is.

(It’s worth noting that part of this book’s power comes from Waite’s own experiences; her bestselling memoir “A Beautiful, Terrible Thing” is an exploration of her own dealings with manipulative power dynamics and interpersonal isolation. Those real-life experiences are reflected in this new book, providing a verisimilitude that is as effective as it is unsettling.)

“Survival Instincts” is a story about the many kinds of monsters that we face – some bare-faced and roaring, others masked and calculating, but all eventually unable to contain the horrors within. But it is also about the strength that we have to do battle with these monsters, to vanquish the terrible forces that would do us harm. That fight may take place on the physical plane, in the emotional realm or some combination therein, but it is a fight that we must never forget can be won.

We will survive.

Last modified on Tuesday, 04 August 2020 15:32

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