I received Foxlowe in exchange for an honest review.
Using a naive young protagonist as our narrator, Eleanor Wasserberg peels back the layers of what life may be like living within a small commune or cult, realistically portraying the effects of brainwashing from a young age and what can happen when one follower stands out from the crowd.
There’s something distinctly chilling about Foxlowe right from the opening lines of the first chapter; “Tiny red beads came from the lines on my arm. These soft scars gave way like wet paper.” It’s told from the point of view of Green, a young girl growing up in Foxlowe, a mansion housing a commune within the English countryside. Isolated and sheltered from society, the ‘Family’ (as they call themselves) have developed their own set of rules and way of living; they believe the Bad is everywhere Outside, where people have become corrupted by money and power. They live self-sufficient lives, growing their own crops for food and creating artwork which they sell at local markets to raise money. There’s echoes of paganism in their rituals, living right by the ‘standing stones’ they mark the Solstice twice a year, and celebrate the harvest of that autumn brings.
It all sounds like it could be innocent enough – there’s not necessarily anything wrong in principle with a group of people sustaining themselves and looking after each other, majoritively without help from the outside world. But in such a sheltered society, it’s easy for one person to manipulate others to their way of thinking, and that’s exactly what happens here.
Because of the childish first person narration, it took me a little while to realise how truly corrupted the small community was. There’s horrific child abuse, bizarre rituals and dictatorship, but our protagonist accepts this as the norm and believes there is a valid reason for all of it. It’s up to the reader to read between the lines and pick apart the unusual terminology the society has created (the Bad, the Crisis, the salt scattering – there’s a lot of it) to realise there’s something wholly altogether more sinister going on. And that, surely, at some point, the fragile community the leaders have created is bound to fall apart.
Which it does, of course. After following Green growing up in the cult, the narrative moves to a number of years later, when Green is living in London and the Foxlowe she knew no longer exists. Her adaptation to normal life makes for difficult reading, but the author keeps us in suspense as to the events which caused the end of Foxlowe until the very last few chapters.
A little slow in places, but in general this novel is well-paced, gradually building an underlying feeling of menace, leading to the final revelation of how the society fell apart. It’s a disturbing read about a disturbed, manipulative individual fighting for control of a corrupted society, and the innocent children who get caught up in it. An impressive debut.