It is a bit of a horrific coincidence that Koethi Zan’s debut novel should be written some time before but published so soon after the discovery that three women had been held against their wills and abused for years in a working class neighborhood in Cleveland with no one being the wiser. THE NEVER LIST begins with a somewhat similar premise, but approaches it from a different and unique perspective, which stays with the reader long after the final page is read.
The book is written from the perspective of a young woman named Sarah, who was inseparable from her friend, Jennifer. From the beginning of their adolescence, they had compiled a list of dangers and the ways to avoid them --- the Never List --- under the theory that fate was not the reason that people experienced disaster; fate was what occurred when someone was not prepared or paying attention. The two paid particular attention to this list when they began college together. Ironically, the one time that they deviated from observing the list resulted in disaster.
"One of the more intriguing elements of the novel is the antagonism that exists among the three women, particularly between Tracy and Sarah, for reasons that are not wholly revealed until near the end of the book. The tension makes things all the more interesting as events conspire to make Tracy and Sarah somewhat reluctant allies..."
An evening of fun ended with both of them being held captive in the basement of the home of Jack Derber, a college professor, who kept them for his own amusement. Sarah and Jennifer were not alone; two other women, Christine and Tracy, were already prisoners. By the time the chamber of horrors is discovered, only three are released; Jennifer, for whom a special punishment had been reserved, is no longer with them.
Over a decade later, Sarah is living in virtual isolation in a New York apartment, still traumatized from her experiences. Derber is up for parole, and his three surviving victims have been urged to testify against his release at the upcoming hearing. He is sending each of them letters that are somewhat rambling in content but allude to the past and contain cross-references to each of the women. Christine, who perhaps has acquired the closest thing to a normal life, is not interested in revisiting the past, while Tracy, who has adapted a goth lifestyle, is willing to testify but will have nothing to do with Sarah.
One of the more intriguing elements of the novel is the antagonism that exists among the three women, particularly between Tracy and Sarah, for reasons that are not wholly revealed until near the end of the book. The tension makes things all the more interesting as events conspire to make Tracy and Sarah somewhat reluctant allies as they hesitantly return to the place where so much was stolen from them. They discover that Derber, despite being incarcerated, is still pulling strings in the outside world, and they may not have been Derber’s only victims.
While some of the events may seem far-fetched, those who have studied the patterns of disappearances in the United States have concluded that there may well be individuals at work such as those who are described in these pages. An astounding number of people disappear each year, with no apparent evidence of foul play. Given that it is not illegal for individuals to simply up and leave their respective situations, there is little reason for law enforcement to become involved, so that those left behind --- as was the case in the Cleveland abductions --- can only wonder at their absence. This state of affairs helps to make THE NEVER LIST a chilling debut from a promising author whose future books will no doubt be eagerly anticipated.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on July 19, 2013