Blythe is 16 years old when she is abducted in the small town of Eudora, Kansas, by the school librarian, Dobbs, and taken into the ground, into an old missile silo. Its darkness, loneliness and confinement are to become her life, relieved only by the terror and hate that she feels for the absurdly, insanely rational Dobbs, the fight that he brings out in her. Time passes and Blythe must raise a child, Adam, a boy who grows to believe what ‘Mister’ tells him, that he is part of a big plan, that the world is dead, their mission to survive. But all the time Blythe never gives up hope that she will find a way out and see the sky, her friends, parents and siblings again before she too loses her mind. Surely they never stopped searching?
Above is not an easy book to review. It is, at least it was for me, extremely difficult to put down. It felt as though it insisted on it, demanding my time and almost obsession until I knew what was to happen. As a result, I read it in just a day. There was no way I was going to sleep without knowing how it ended. It is a story in two halves, with the first, more straightforward in plot but horrifying in subject, taking place underground. There are few secrets in this half of the book, although there are some and they are as dark as the depths of the silo pit, but the entire second half should be a surprise. It was to me and I couldn’t wait to get to it, knowing something was coming but not knowing what. When it comes, it’s none too subtle but by then I was more than ready to take it on the chin. Of that second half, my lips are sealed.
I’m not a reader of non-historical crime fiction and I particularly don’t like novels that feature violence towards women. Both of these were sticking points for me with Above. Fortunately, although the very nature of Blythe’s situation is as disturbing and truly awful as life can get, Blythe’s narration made it easier for me to read. Don’t get me wrong – Dobbs is as evil as evil can be and this is clear throughout but Blythe’s emotions towards him are much more the focus than the violence itself. It is worth saying that I was prepared to put up with a lot in order to find out what was to happen in the second half. The style of writing is such that it is easy to flit through uneasy sections. We all as readers have different levels of squeamishness, it’s difficult to get much lower than mine.
Before reading Above, I was also a little concerned that it would fall into the Gone Girl category – ie, a book that trapped me into it, wouldn’t let me go until I was finished with it and could throw it across the room. I’m relieved to say that, in my opinion, Above is a far better book. Blythe and Dobbs are fascinating characters, although neither is especially knowable due to their situation. I liked Blythe’s voice, though, its reflection of her self-image, its ageing and its determination and, at times, its madness. There were moments here when I really cried. There is one scene when a character holds another one up, so that they don’t have to cope, so that they can let go and be supported. This paragraph towards the end was worth the entire book.
This is not a perfect novel by any means. There are elements to Adam’s depiction that I could hardly stomach. He does have scenes which are marvellous but they are greatly outnumbered by the unbelievable and the sentimental. I realise that he is damaged by his creation and upbringing but even so I never thought him real as I did Blythe. There are also some strange plot devices in the second half of the book. Despite its subject matter, Above is a light read and it never felt to me more than that. Its plot is key, its style is secondary. Places, for instance, are not particularly well described. As mentioned before, it is extremely easy to skip over lines while not being aware you’re doing it.
But when it comes to plot and atmosphere and suspense, Above has them by the cartload. Without doubt, this is one of the hardest books to put down that I have ever read and, thank heavens, when I reached the end and thought back on it and the journey to it, I was not disappointed at all.