THOSE WHO RETURN
Kassandra Montag (kassandramontag.com)
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Hatchery House sits in the middle of the wilderness in the Great Plains of Nebraska. At various times in its history a church, an asylum and an orphanage, it’s now a treatment facility for orphaned children with psychiatric disorders. Dr Lore (short for Lorelei) Webber is a psychiatrist who has been working at Hatchery for a year. Her life is turned upside-down when one of her patients is brutally murdered, and the FBI are called in. A former FBI psychiatrist, Lore is forced to relive the tragic events that led her to Hatchery House when her former partner arrives on the scene. Dragged into the investigation, she must choose between her friend and her patients, and catch the murderer before they strike again.
Those Who Return is Kassandra Montag’s second novel. Its wilderness setting makes it feel less like an American novel and more in line with Australian novels such as Jane Harper’s The Dry or Peter Papathanasiou’s The Stoning. At its centre is the storied Hatchery House, now a live-in medical facility for orphaned and abandoned children, where Lore Webber works as a psychiatrist for both children and staff. We get a great sense of isolation, nothing nearby except a small farm whose owner keeps herself to herself, and an abandoned town with a handful of rundown buildings. Hatchery may be haunted, giving Those Who Return something of a gothic feel, so it’s a little unexpected when the horrors we encounter are all very real, and very much man made.
The novel is slow to start, despite the murder that drives the story taking place reasonably early. Both Hatchery and Lore have complex backstories which Montag examines in parallel with the contemporary plot. This allows her to also introduce us to the rest of the staff and a handful of the children, setting up a number of potential suspects while, at the same time, chipping away at Lore’s credibility, forcing the reader to constantly re-evaluate what we think of this young woman, and whether we should trust her. Nobody is above suspicion, yet we still feel some empathy with many of the characters we meet along the way.
Surprisingly, the most interesting character is Oksana Sussel, the old woman who lives on the neighbouring farm, and who the residents of Hatchery have dubbed Baba Yaga, after an old witch from Slavic folklore. She steals every scene she appears in, with her grumpy facade and dry wit. Her interesting backstory doesn’t do any harm in this regard, and she becomes something of a grounding presence for Lore, whose life seems to fall apart as she moves through the story.
If you can get past the first third of Those Who Return, you will find a gripping and engaging story that will keep you on your toes through to the end. History plays a big part in the events, so be prepared for frequent flashbacks and detours from the central storyline. In all, it’s a cleverly-constructed mystery inhabited by interesting and believable characters that will make you want to come back for more.