The Never List is a frighteningly real psychological suspense, from debut author Koethi Zan sure to appeal to fans of Gillian Flynn and Chelsea Cain.
The basic plot of The Never List follows a young woman, who a decade ago escaped a man who held her and three other young women captive for several years. Sarah and Jennifer were college freshmen, hyper-aware of the dangers the world can offer—having survived a near fatal accident that took the life of Jennifer’s mother—and always prepared for any possible outcome; yet despite their manic preparedness the girls are kidnapped on a cab ride home from a college party. Held chained and naked in a basement, Sarah, along with two other girls, Tracy and Christine endure psychological and physical torture on par with the psychosis seen in Saw films, from a sadist of the highest ilk who also happens to be a professor of Psychology at an Oregon University. All the while Jennifer is nowhere to be seen, stuffed in a coffin-like box, unable to communicate with the others. When Jennifer is presumed dead Sarah makes a daring escape, but ten years on, with the chance of their frighteningly brilliant captor facing the possibility of parole, Sarah and Tracy go on a quest to find answers and face their demons once and for all.
The narrative, while primarily in the now, does bounce around in time, with snippets of the girls’ abduction, captivity, and escape dribbled out through the text; giving just enough to whet the appetite and fill in the holes, but not enough to completely tell the reader all that happened during the girls imprisonment. The violence is surprisingly slim, but the hints and possibilities that are leaked through words and images are enough to have even the bravest of women white knuckled. In some ways The Never List is a form of psychological manipulation; exposing the horrors, highlighting the monsters, but not quite giving all the details, which leads to imagination, which leads readers to visualize horrors that no one wants dancing around their heads. In that way, the book and writing are brilliant, what better way to get the true impact of a psychological thriller than to leave the worst of it to the readers’ own bit of psychosis? Unfortunately, the plot itself suffers a bit from an overabundance of foreshadowing and clue leaving; which makes it a bit too easy to figure out. In writing suspense it’s good to leave a clue here and there, a reader should be able to reach the novel’s conclusion and then be able to look back and find the bits and pieces that were left like little breadcrumbs leading to the eventual outcome. The writer should not spell out the conclusion—it makes for a poor twist and a groan from the readers. Debut writer Zan does the latter, the twists and outcome are a little too predictable. Fortunately, the predictability of the plot and resolution does not detract from the well-developed tension of the heroine, and ultimate horror of the acts and lifestyle perpetrated by the villains of the novel. The sheer terror evoked by their deeds is enough to have readers gripping the edge of the book in a weird amalgamation of discomfort and curiosity, both repelled by the concepts and addicted to the possible outcomes. Because the author wisely leaves out the more ghastly details the reader is not subjected to an outright description of the atrocities, making the tension one of the mind, and not of the eyes—meaning it’s not like watching a film like Saw or Hostel that leaves nothing to the imagination, showing torture for the sake of showing gratuitous violence and nothing more—the book is not apt to make one squeamish, or deeply disturbed, if anything it makes readers subtly more aware of their surroundings and the people within them.
In all, The Never List is a worthy read for psychological suspense and thriller fans. It is well constructed, frightening, and at times close enough to reality to make a reader want to check the doors and avoid cab rides. Despite the plot loopholes and predictability, the book creates a wonderful sort of edge-of-the-seat tension that can consume a reader, and lurk about long after the last pages of text are a distant memory. For a first book Koethi Zan has proved herself adept at handling a very real and scary subject, she can only get better from here, and I for one am eager to see what she does next.