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Koethi Zan
The Never List
Pamela Dorman Books / Penguin Putnam
US Hardcover First Edition
ISBN 978-0-670-02651-7
Publication Date: 07-16-2013
306 Pages; $27.95
Date Reviewed: 07-26-2013
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2013

Index:  Mystery  Horror  General Fiction

Crime fiction thrives on a strange mix predictability and surprise. When we start a novel about a crime, we expect a solution that reveals and punishes the perpetrator while it vindicates the victim. We hope the writer will evade expectations while delivering on a promise of redemption. We're like kids at Christmas who want exactly what we asked for, but still expect the unexpected.

In 'The Never List,' Koethi Zan wastes no time with setup. Sarah, a twenty-something year-old woman, is trapped in a cellar with three other young women. One is taken away, and does not return. It's a nightmare and a headline — from the victim's perspective.

From the very beginning, 'The Never List' manages to be both a terrorizing page-turner and a careful character study. Sarah tells her story in the first person, shot through with flashbacks like the one that begins the book. The main story begins in the present, ten years after she managed to escape and see her captor jailed.

Sarah's narrative voice drives the novel, and Zan's characterization is crafty and riveting. Sarah's now a shut-in, living in Manhattan. When contacted by the FBI about another parole session, she starts to unravel and in the process she begins to face what happened and unravel the past as well. Each step away from her sheltered life brings her closer to an underworld that she is loath to acknowledge exists.

Sarah is a complicated, intensely conflicted character who reveals to the reader other women, equally complicated and conflicted. The other women in that cellar, Tracy and Christine, have taken very different paths from Sarah. An academic they meet along the way, Adele, is a gripping study in her own right. Notable is that in this crime novel, every major character is a woman, and that there is no romantic story arc.

With a first-person narrator who is clearly and understandably unreliable, Zan has a very difficult task for herself. She can't crank up tension by zipping from one perspective to another, but she can by slotting back and forth between the present and the past. While their captor was himself captured and incarcerated, there were many open questions in the case, and Sarah is compelled to close them, even at her own peril. She's also got her own inner issues to deal with, and getting to know the character who is telling the story proves to generate a large part of the tension in the story.

Since Sarah is telling the story in the first person, the prose has a double duty. Zan has to both craft character and keep things moving, describe scenes, and generate tension in a single believable voice. What's nice is that Sarah is changing pretty rapidly as the book moves forward. 'The Never List' is always enjoyable to read, no matter where Sarah is, or thinks she is.

The final task of a mystery is to give the reader a satisfying finish, and Zan works this excellently. She cooks up plenty of surprises in a relatively short space, but stays true to both reality as we know it and reality as Sarah sees it. The two are not necessarily congruent. And while she has an understandably sketchy relationship with reality, Sarah has a fantastic feel for the reader.

'The Never List' is a book that you won't want to put down, and that you'll be able to revisit after you finish. Even so, take your time when you read it. Koethi Zan is clearly a very talented writer, and my addition to the "never list" would be, "Never read a book by Koethi Zan too fast." The wait for the next book might seem to last forever.

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