The Familiar Dark by Amy Engel
Dutton Books | March 31, 2020
How much does our upbringing dictate the kind of person we’ll be? I know it sounds like a philosophical thought, like nature vs nurture. Can you be a “good” if you were raised by someone terrible? Or, the better question is, can a traumatic childhood twist a good heart into something questionable?
I mean, really, is “good” and “bad” even a thing?
I did something different with this review. Normally I finish a book and immediately sit down to purge my thoughts; then I come back to edit another day. Except, after finishing The Familiar Dark I felt very conflicted. I legitimately could not understand what emotion I was feeling. There was no way I could have written anything remotely productive. It took me a full 24 hours of marinating before I could articulate, and all night those were the questions running through my head.
Backing it up a little, the plot of The Familiar Dark was intense. I mean, I knew it was about a mother who lost her daughter, but I guess I didn’t expect to be that shook over it. By chapter two I was crying. For a mom, especially a mom with a teenage girl, it really hit me hard. This author really captured the pain, an all consuming grief, a parent would feel. Yeah, outwardly we’d all react differently, but it’s hard to imagine that inside we’re all equally shredded; bleeding out on the inside. Reading a loss like that, my biggest nightmare, made me feel ill inside.
So, while I felt awful the entire time, I believed every second of it.
You have to see how powerful Amy Engel’s writing was.
The little town in the Ozarks was so desolate. It was dark, and… brittle. It was easy to imagine how a place like that could create people this messed up. And, holy sh*t they were so messed up!
Which brings me to the characters, and back to my bundle of mixed up emotions. First of all, I realized I love a good psychological thriller, and The Familiar Dark was the best one I’ve ever read. I hated it so much, I loved it. I will seriously never ever forget this book. There wasn’t one character in the entire story that was flat. There were no cookie cutter characters, just thrown in for fodder. Every single one was multi-dimensional. There were some you loved. They were the hero(ine)s of the story. They fit in the “Good” box. Then, you had the characters you knew in your gut were just evil. They were “Bad”. And in this world of books we can almost always bank on the good being good, and the bad being bad. Sometimes good loses, but in the end they were still good.
And this leads me to the psychological part of the story, and those questions. How much does our nurture affect our nature? Who determines what “good” behavior is? How quickly does “good” behavior go out the window when it comes to survival?
The Familiar Dark opened my mind up, and I hated it the way a child hates finding out there’s no Santa Claus. Clearly I both hate and love this story, the same way in the end I hate and love every single character. This is one of the best books I’ve ever read, and I won’t read it again. I was enthralled, but I was also left with some scars.
I love a good psychological thriller, but yeah… I won’t be reading another for a while.
I hope this review inspires someone to read this book. I could really use a sounding board right about now.
Thank you to NetGalley and Dutton Books for providing an advance copy, in exchange for an honest review.