Our society finds it incredibly attention-catching and chilling when news stories about women who are abducted and held captive for many years come out. I think this is because these cases often involve normal middle-class girls who are then taken and held in a confined structure which is often amidst ordinary communities. The realization that next door someone might be held prisoner in a secret room for many years while you’ve gone about living your life is horrifying. Therefore getting into the psychology of such unusual cases makes very compelling fictional material. Isla Morley has taken on this subject matter in her new novel “Above” where teenager Blythe Hallowell is abducted by a man from her own community named Dobbs and imprisoned in a customized hiding space for many years. With gripping detail and vivid descriptions the author describes how Blythe must adjust to her captivity where she feels like “a convict – except I can’t figure out my crime.”
The terrifying truth about why Dobbs has chosen to kidnap her is gradually revealed. Her abductor believes he is justified and right in having taken Blythe away as she explains: “To define the terms by which I am here, he uses words like delivered and rescued and saved.” The author truly gets inside the twisted psychology of the abductor by laying out the language of his logic and how he tells himself and Blythe that what he has done is for a good cause. It’s part of his masculine pride that he believes he knows what’s better for a woman than she knows herself. Equally, the portrayal of Blythe’s struggle to maintain her sanity is portrayed in eerily believable detail.
The account of Blythe’s imprisonment is told in such a compelling manner that I was curious where the story would go when halfway through the novel the narrative takes an abrupt suspenseful turn. I don’t want to give any spoilers but suddenly it becomes another kind of story completely and one which is equally gripping in its delineation of horrifying events. This progression shows how Morley is working with larger and more widely relatable issues.
Comparisons will naturally be made with Emma Donoghue’s immersive novel “Room”. However, in Morley’s novel the protagonist wasn’t born in captivity but was brought there. This gives her a rich amount of memories to call upon and it also makes her hope for escape all the more persistent. She develops coping mechanisms for maintaining her sanity such as creating stories inside her head: “Stories keep the fire burning inside us, stories keep us from dashing our heads against the wall.” The same could be said (on a much less dramatic level) about why we are so drawn to reading and telling ourselves stories to deal with the larger challenges and inhibiting nature of life. This novel also puts one in mind of Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” and PD James’ novel “Children of Men” in their portrayal of hideous possible realities and pondering the meaning of survival.
It feels that the challenge a reader can take away from “Above” is summed up in a line of dialogue from a character named Pops: “None of us are to be spared suffering. The better question is, are we being defined by our afflictions? Are we to live with them or live above them?” Throughout our lives we will all encounter suffering whether it be of large or small proportions. The difficulty is how to work through this adversity and not only survive but thrive. Morley’s novel gives a challenging point of view to this conundrum by creating a thought-provoking and compulsively-readable tale.