All The Books I Can Read

1 girl….2 many books!

Review: See You In September by Charity Norman

on June 7, 2017

See You In September
Charity Norman
Allen & Unwin
2017, 423p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

Cassy blew a collective kiss at them. ‘See you in September,’ she said. A throwaway line. Just words, uttered casually by a young woman in a hurry. And then she’d gone.

It was supposed to be a short trip – a break in New Zealand before her best friend’s wedding. But when Cassy waved goodbye to her parents, they never dreamed that it would be years before they’d see her again.

Having broken up with her boyfriend, Cassy accepts an invitation to stay in an idyllic farming collective. Overcome by the peace and beauty of the valley and swept up in the charisma of Justin, the community’s leader, Cassy becomes convinced that she has to stay.

As Cassy becomes more and more entrenched in the group’s rituals and beliefs, her frantic parents fight to bring her home – before Justin’s prophesied Last Day can come to pass.

A powerful story of family, faith and finding yourself, See You in September is an unputdownable new novel from this hugely compelling author.

I find cults really fascinating to read about – I’ve read a few books centred around some before, but mostly non-fiction accounts of Jonestown and the like. I think that tackling a cult in a fiction novel can be quite difficult because it’s hard to portray the true charisma and power of a leader. So much of it relies on atmosphere, emotions, sheer numbers of people all claiming to experience the same thing. It’s really hard to make that believable on paper.

Cassy was supposed to be travelling for the (English) summer months with her boyfriend before returning to London to finish her law degree. Things have been a struggle with Hamish and when something happens that’s the last straw for Cassy and she impulsively breaks up with him and accepts a lift from a van full of people. They convince her to come and visit them where they live sustainably on a large piece of land they call Gethsemane in rural New Zealand. It’s a relatively decent sized community, ranging in age from tiny babies to people in their seventies and they’re not all raving hippies. There are doctors, carpenters, engineers, people specialising in permaculture and other farming aspects. It seems incredibly idyllic and somewhat disillusioned and swayed by the calm pressure of the residents, Cassy finds herself agreeing to stay. She feels as though she’s finally found where she belongs, where she should be.

The narrative is split between Cassy and her time at Gethsemane, and Diana, Cassy’s mother back in England. When they get word that Cassy won’t be coming home, they inform the police, her father even goes to New Zealand to attempt to get her to come home but they are met with stonewalling at every turn. Cassy is legally an adult and has chosen to stay at Gethsemane. The community isn’t doing anything unlawful, they keep to themselves mostly and there are no reasons for police to interfere. Diana and Mike, Cassy’s father are also hit with terrible repercussions from Mike’s attempt to bring Cassy home and that, combined with Cassy’s choosing to stay in New Zealand, to cut herself off from her family for their “negative influence”, slowly erodes their marriage and their very lives, including that of Cassy’s younger sister Tara.

The thing is, I can see the appeal of a place like Gethsemane in part – the idea of living off the land has always kind of appealed to me despite the fact I’m completely hopeless at that sort of stuff. But New Zealand is so gorgeous, it’s all too easy to imagine something like this, growing food and raising animals. The community has its own school and is very communal, with residents having no real possessions as such and taking group meals. However, dig a little deeper and there’s always a sinister side – Cassy signs over her entire inheritance from her grandparents, about £32,000 which is probably close to $60,000NZ and that’s just a drop in the ocean compared to how much some people have given to Justin, the charismatic leader of the community, once they have joined and decided to make their lives there.

Which brings me to Justin himself – he’s an enigmatic figure, appearing randomly, seemingly all knowing and all seeing. He’s a good public speaker, powerful with his words and gifted at making people think that he’s listening, that he’s understanding. He chooses his followers well, sees what they want and need and works a way to give it to them and in return they give back to him. There’s utmost unfaltering loyalty towards him and any sort of questioning is termed “negativity” and results in ostracisation and thinly veiled threats. Even children don’t belong to their parents but to the community, with Justin choosing their names (and often, much more than that). Justin’s charisma covers a layer of delusion though, that he’s a Messiah, some sort of saviour and he’ll be the one to lead those at Gethsemane to a better place. I think that Charity Norman did a good job writing Justin to be as compelling as was probably possible and it’s easy to read over this sort of stuff with a practiced, cynical eye when you’re not the one on your own in a foreign country, being targeted with the full force of friendship and values, being made to feel included and special. There’s so much idealism in the lifestyle that I think for some people, by the time the real indoctrination about the end of the world and the saviour and all that stuff sets in, it’s way too late. They’re already fully invested. And any dissenting thoughts are shut down so quickly with shunning and deliberate acts that make a person feel unbalanced, so they almost overcompensate, throwing themselves into rabid belief in a way to be accepted again. I saw it in Cassy several times.

I think this book is brilliant. I loved the split narrative that gave such a gut-wrenching account of what it was like for Cassy’s parents to know that she was on the other side of the world, not even able to be contacted. It damaged them all in so many ways, their family unit. It made me think much more about what it’s like for the families when this happens – usually my thoughts focused on the people who joined themselves. When they have no families, you can perhaps understand why this becomes such an attractive option. But Cassy had a tightknit, loving family unit – yes there were some issues and pressure to finish her degree, get a job, be successful. For Mike and Diane, it was just unthinkable that this had happened to the girl they had raised to be a strong, independent woman in an atheist household. But it does happen. It’s not just fiction.

Another amazing read from Charity Norman, 2 in a row from her now. I’ve still got her earlier books to read, really must get to those ASAP.

9/10

Book #99 of 2017

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2 responses to “Review: See You In September by Charity Norman

  1. Theresa Smith Writes says:

    I’ve never read Charity Norman but this sounds like an excellent introduction for me to her work. Thanks for such a great review.

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