After surviving a car crash together, eighteen-year-old Sarah and her best friend Jennifer are grasping for control of their world. The girls compose a list of things that they should never do in order to keep them safe from any additional harm. The list contains such warnings as “Never be stranded,” “Never act impulsively in an emergency situation,” and “Never get in the car.” By the time the girls start college, however, they start to ease up a bit, and they do “get in the car.” Thus begins a tortuous three year ordeal in which the girls are kept chained in a psycho’s basement with two other young women.
I normally feel as if the whole “women-chained-in-the-basement” motif is kindof a cheap device in terms of terror, but Koethi Zan knows what she is doing. The Never List is genuinely disturbing on a number of levels. For one thing, Sarah is narrating these events ten years after the fact, so we are told of the basement torments only in bits and pieces. This is in conjunction with Sarah’s present-day existence, which is heavily impacted by her past trauma. Sarah at thirty-one directly stems from the torture she endured in early adulthood, and her ability to function is dependent on a strict adherence to her own extreme “Never List.” She rarely leaves the house, lives under a new name, and has limited contact with anyone outside of her doorman. This is where Zan really shines as an author. The masochistic torture scenes are creepy, sure, but the lingering impact of the torture is what is truly terrifying. Sarah’s life is no longer her own; she spends every day in a self-constructed prison created out of a continued fear for her abductor. Years later, Sarah is still mentally controlled by this man, practically rendering her physical escape null.
This idea that Sarah can never fully escape is the driving force of this novel. Sarah must face her past before she can have a future. It is at this point that the novel slips into the cliched realm of talk show book clubs: abused/wronged women finding inner strength and redemption. In spite of this Oprah-esque interlude, though, The Never List regains its stride with its shocking final twist. The ending is a little too tidy for my tastes, but overall, the good qualities blatantly overshadow the bad. I remain pleasantly surprised by The Never List – it is that rare book that generates real terror without resorting to garish ploys to do so. Well, not many garish ploys, anyway.
*A special thanks to Penguin Books for the advanced paperback edition of Koethi Zan’s The Never List