26 September 2023

In the Clearing

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Reviewed by Robert Goodman.

By JP Pomare, Hachette, $32.99.

JP Pomare follows up his well received and award winning debut Call me Evie with a novel that takes as its inspiration the true and very troubling story of The Family. The Family was an Australian cult led by a charismatic woman called Anne Hamilton-Byrne. The cult set up in the Australian bush and “acquired” children through their members to inculcate in their particular mix of religion. JP Pomare uses a barely fictionalised version of The Family as the basis of this twisty, disturbing thriller.

In The Clearing is narrated by two characters – Amy and Freya. Amy is living in the Clearing with her “brothers and sisters” who were “all saved from the world outside”, their guiding philosophy is to “protect the queen” Adrienne who is the leader of the group and (possibly) Amy’s mother. Freya is a damaged adult, she admits early on that she feels she is only acting as “normal” and is estranged from her former husband and first child. Freya lives on a secluded, bushland block with her young son who she both dotes on and constantly frets about.

As with many thrillers of this type the two narratives slowly converge to a point about half way through the book. Following that point, if anything, the book becomes more tense and twisted, forcing the reader the re-evaluate everything they have read or believed up to that point about Amy and Freya more than once.

In The Clearing is a compulsive thriller, exploring the power of cult and personality to drive criminal behaviour. By basing the background on a true story, Pomare also provides insights into one of Australia’s most notorious and in some ways baffling crimes. And even after reading In The Clearing it remains slightly unbelievable that seemingly intelligent people could fall under the influence of a charlatan spouting a combination of Eastern and Western religions with themselves as the spiritual leader. It also looks at the impact on that form of indoctrination on children and persistence of that trauma. The book opens with Amy participating in the kidnapping of a young girl to join their group, an act which she fundamentally does not question and this is not the last of the terrible acts that she is asked to commit in the name of her “mother”.

While missing and endangered children can always be relied on to drive tension in fiction, in In the Clearing these activities are underpinned by a clear and dangerous purpose. Which makes In the Clearing a thought provoking thriller and one that is likely to stay with readers well after the last, hastily turned page.

This and 500 more reviews can be found at www.pilebythebed.com.

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