Isla Morley (www.islamorley.com)
Two Roads (www.tworoadsbooks.com)
The latest book in the Hodderscape Review Project comes from Hodder’s sister imprint, Two Roads, and is, at least early in the book, reminiscent of Emma Donoghue’s excellent Room. The Review Project’s March book was Robert A. Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. You won’t find a review of that book here, because I couldn’t finish the novel. A faux-Russian dialect coupled with barely-comprehensible political rants proved to be something of a turn-off for me, so I had to abandon partway through. Above, on the other hand…well, read on to find out. And don’t forget to check in with my fellow Review Project participants to find out what they thought.
Blythe Hallowell accepts a lift from Eudora’s school librarian, Dobbs Hordin, and disappears off the face of the Earth. Dobbs is a survivalist who is convinced the world is about to end. Blythe is the person who will help him to reseed the human race, so Dobbs locks her in an abandoned missile silo in the remote Kansas countryside and waits for his prediction to come true. As the years pass, Blythe grows to accept her fate, helped along by the arrival of a child. But as the child grows, and becomes more curious, Blythe must prepare herself for the possibility of escape, a return to the world Above. But how much will the world have changed in the lifetime that she has spent underground?
As Isla Morley’s second novel opens, we meet 16-year-old Kansas schoolgirl Blythe Hallowell, who has been abducted by the school librarian and locked in an old missile silo deep below the ground. As if this isn’t traumatic enough we become accustomed to the place through the eyes of this young confused girl: the loneliness (Dobbs returns to his normal life, and is therefore absent for much of the time); the darkness (the lights are on a timer switch that mean Blythe is in complete darkness for large portions of the day); and the strange noises that Blythe’s overactive imagination attribute to some unknown creature with which she is sharing this enclosed space.
There are the inevitable comparisons with Emma Donoghue’s Room, and while the core subject matter is the same, Morley presents us with an entirely different beast in Above. There is something extremely intimate about Blythe’s first-person narrative as we watch her progress through shock and outrage to eventual acceptance, by way of the most terrible grief that can be visited upon a woman. By rights, Blythe should be a gibbering wreck within the first five minutes, but there is something in her character that makes her carry on, drawing strength from each new injustice, each new challenge.
For much of the story, the only other character we meet (with the exception of those we meet during Blythe’s frequent flashbacks to when life was normal) is Dobbs Hordin himself. It doesn’t take long for us to realise (even if Blythe has not) that Dobbs is the closest thing to insane it’s possible to be, and still function in the every day. There is evidence of this in everything from Blythe’s abduction itself, to the introduction of Charlie, and Dobbs’ rationalisations for the child’s abduction, to the novel’s ultimate reveal and the fact that it comes as a complete surprise to Blythe, and to the reader. At one point Blythe labels him as evil. It’s clear to the reader that this is far from the case: Dobbs’ motives are good and simple; his execution leaves much to be desired. Dobbs is a fascinating character and the only drawback to the intimacy we share with Blythe is the inevitable distance between us and his broken-down thought processes.
What makes Above so affecting is its realism. This is no far-fetched scenario, but something we see on the news on a regular basis: young girls abducted only to be found years, if not decades, later having made the best of a bad lot, waiting for their chance to escape. In Blythe, Isla Morley presents us with a character whose survival is assured, not because we’re looking at the world through her eyes, but because of the strength of character and the will for life with which the author has invested her. The choice to present Blythe’s story in the first person means that we live through the daily trials and the overall ordeal with her, never knowing what lies around the next corner, completely immersed in this tiny world that is the polar opposite to the big skies and rolling land for which Kansas is famed.
It is impossible to talk about the latter sections of the novel without introducing major spoilers. Suffice it to say that whatever you think you’re going to encounter will most likely turn out to be wrong. Morley uses every weapon in her considerable arsenal to ensure that we’re never entirely sure about anything beyond the scenario playing out in front of our eyes. Time passes – Blythe spends at least as long in captivity as she did living a normal life before her abduction – but it does so quietly, nothing but hints in the text to suggest that weeks, months or years have passed in little more than the blink of an eye, or the turn of a page. This is used to full effect, meaning that seemingly throwaway lines contain clues that we’ll often only pick up in hindsight.
By turns funny and heart-breaking, tense, horrific, tender, Above is a beautifully-written examination of life interrupted and the terrors that can be inflicted by the people we believe we can trust. At the centre of the story is the feisty, tomboyish Blythe, but it is much more than just her story. Isla Morley’s second novel is an attention-grabbing, twist-filled nightmare pulled straight from the headlines. Perfectly-judged, it quickly gets its hooks into the reader and refuses to let go. Despite the comparisons, you haven’t read anything quite like this before. Above is sure to be Isla Morley’s breakout novel. Morley herself is destined for great things and is definitely worth watching.