“We are here for each other, and we are nothing without each other”
- Book: The Room By The Lake
- Location: New York State
- Author: Emma Dibdin
It’s funny how so many Americans mistake the British accent for Australian. I wonder if it works the other way around and the Australian accent is mistaken for British, or if the British accent is so non-descript that it simply doesn’t register with many Americans at all! So! I hear you ask. What has that got to do with anything?
Well, Caitlin, the main protagonist in this very creepy and disturbing psychological/cult thriller, is British but mistaken for Australian by just about everyone whose path she crosses, as all the action takes place on the other side of the Atlantic, in New York State, both Cityside and in the rural Catskills.
I discovered this paperback edition on my shelves, whilst I was searching for some hospital waiting room reading. It looks very much as though this was a forgotten competition win somewhere along the road and whilst not a book I would probably have chosen to purchase for myself, I became so engrossed in Caitlin’s traumatic few weeks in New York State, I found myself with my fingers well and truly crossed that she would make it safely onto a plane back home to the UK…
After recently losing her schizophrenic mother to cancer, Caitlin is once again assured by her alcoholic father, that his days of hitting the bottle and slowly but surely killing himself in front of her, are over for good. So, after a particularly vitriolic confrontation with him, when she finds him drinking to excess once more, Caitlin packs her bags, leaves messages for a couple of close friends telling them not to worry about her, ditches her phone and pitches up at the airport. With little cash, she decides on New York as her destination, fabricating a thin tissue of lies and half truths about herself, should anyone ask her why she is there.
It soon becomes apparent to an increasingly lost and lonely Caitlin, that for her, America is not the place of hopes and dreams she had imagined. That is until, following a random act of kindness which sees her invited to a July 4th street party, she meets the magnetic and hypnotising Jake. The attraction between them seems deeply genuine and instant, so when, with nothing left to lose and within just a few days of knowing each other, Jake suggests that he would like her to meet his family, no strings attached, Caitlin makes the short journey out of the city into the beautiful Catskills, despite the nagging doubt that all might not be as it appears, fuelled partly by the mutual antipathy she and Jake’s friend Kris had instantly shared, when he had stopped by to lend Jake his car for the trip.
Despite falling instantly in love with the gorgeous house and its surroundings and notwithstanding Jake’s assurances that his parents are on their way to join them, Caitlin is growing evermore uneasy with the entire situation, especially when she discovers that she and Jake are there alone for the first night, with free access to only a handful of rooms which aren’t locked. So far, Caitlin hasn’t fully given herself to Jake, however, the intrigue and romance of the day’s events have broken down her resolve and they spend the night together, only for her to have her faith in him shattered almost immediately, when an older couple, who are most definitely not his parents, arrive with an entourage of mostly younger people, who are obviously familiar with the house, which looks to be run as some kind of commune or retreat. Almost immediately Jake, who has apparently fulfilled his duty in recruiting her, distances himself from Caitlin and her days are mapped out by what soon transpires to be the cult’s, self appointed leader Don and certain chosen members of his inner circle . Exercise, diet and mindfulness are the three buzz words around the place and despite Caitlin’s assertions that she is going to leave and head back to the city, which she is assured that she is free to do, she finds herself evermore tied to and dependent on Don’s counselling sessions in his lakeside log cabin, buried deep in the woods of the estate.
A fragile Caitlin, finds herself losing all track of time, whilst revealing all of her most precious innermost fears and worries to Don. But when she then panics about just how much she has opened up to him and tries to leave, she only makes it as far as the nearest town before two members of the cult catch up with her and almost forcibly return her to the house, where she is treated with contempt, derision and scorn by everyone else. Caitlin’s bad vibes about the influence Don is exerting over other members of the cult, particularly the women, grow exponentially and the situation becomes toxic, to the point where death rears its ugly head, not once, but twice and the truth about just how manipulated and conditioned they have all become, is clearly apparent. That it was never really Don pulling the strings, becomes painfully and frighteningly obvious, as much as he may have thought that his word was law, and the new order hierarchy is much worse than Caitlin could ever have imagined.
Can anyone save them all from the horror of this new order of tyranny, or are Caitlin and the others destined to a life of subjugation and near imprisonment?
Narrated by Caitlin herself, this well structured, dark and brooding, compulsive and sinister storyline, was presented in short, quite punchy chapters, with the pace of the action although slow, being totally relentless and building to a heart-stopping conclusion for me and a near fatal crescendo for her. Whilst I was partly correct in the early assumptions I had made about this storyline, I was constantly on the edge of my seat, unintentionally holding my breath, as many secrets and even more lies, were fed into the narrative and dialogue, one agonising drip at a time, drawing out and ratcheting up the suspense and tension almost to breaking point. Just when I thought I had worked out the many additional strands to this story, another curved ball was thrown into the mix, with that eventual dovetailing not finally happening until almost the final agonising scene of this mind-bending, rollercoaster ride.
To me, it was obvious from the get-go that Jake wasn’t quite the hero he purported to be and as soon as he and Caitlin arrived at the Catskills house, alarm bells were ringing loud and clear and I was willing her to make good her escape from him and run for the hills. However, despite Caitlin’s stoic front, she was already so desperately vulnerable and anxious, that on reflection, I could quite understand how she might have got so easily taken in and persuaded by that initial meeting with the group, that they only had her best interests at heart and wanted to help her turn her broken life around. There were so many trigger points, any of which would have led to mental health issues, or exacerbated existing conditions, even amongst the best and most sane of us: The ruthless recruiting of potential new cult members; persuading members to open up about their mental health challenges, then turning those intimate and confidential admissions against them; administering mass medication via food and drink to manipulate perception of time; being forced to change their given names in an effort to finally separate them from all vestiges of their former lives; grooming and abuse of female cult members by Don, who twisted their innermost thoughts and fears to his own advantage. Author Emma Dibdin keeps up the air of unease throughout, whilst bringing to the fore so many issues, with great empathy and in a sympathetic yet unpatronizing way. Some of the sessions Caitlin endured with Don, where painful childhood memories are evoked and drawn to the surface, particularly resonated with me, leaving me trying to calm my own emotions, at the same time wanting to reach out to her with a comforting embrace.
You will probably have already guessed by now, just how much I disliked many of the characters in this storyline, although in all fairness to many of them, they had been relentlessly indoctrinated with so many of their installed beliefs, by some clever, manipulative and malevolent people, who had only sought to capitalise on their already fragile states of mind. Caitlin and maybe Jake, were much stronger than they believed themselves to be, although definitely still only to be admired more than liked, with enough of their own reasoning and strength of mind and will left to realise the level to which they were being ‘turned’ by Don and his cronies.
As an avid ‘armchair traveller’, despite being confined to one location, I was quite surprised to find myself relatively satisfied with my journey on this occasion. This story was predominantly all about the characters, their relationships to one another, the events which had drawn them together, and which were destined to rip them apart, so location was never really going to be a dominating factor. The storyline was set almost exclusively in and around the house, woods and lake, in the Catskill area, which was quite isolated and non attention grabbing. However, author Emma Dibdin, used the full palette of words at her disposal to describe the buildings and surrounding vista, in a way which imbued a genuine sense of time and place, no matter how remote or rather depressing, to the point where I could imagine myself getting lost in the wooded labyrinth, desperately searching for the log cabin by the lake, completely immersed in the gloom around me, as later I fought to keep hold of any sense of reality after my sessions with Don. If only those trees could have talked!
What always makes reading such a wonderful experience for me, is that with each and every new book I read, I am taken on an individual journey, by authors who fire my imagination, stir my emotions and stimulate my senses. This rather disturbing and intense storyline definitely had the power to evoke so many feelings, that I’m sure I won’t have felt the same way about it as the last reader, nor probably the next. This is one story which is going to offer disturbing and menacing thoughts to anyone who opens its covers and I can’t wait to see where author Emma Dibdin’s vivid imagination leads her next.