When Sarah and Jennifer were 12-years old, they were in a car accident that killed Jennifer’s mother and put both girls in hospital for four months. In a kind of post-traumatic pathology, they start making lists of things that can harm or kill them. They find a fragile comfort in their knowledge, believing it can protect them from danger. When they go to college, they start The Never List – a list of things they should never do: “never go to the campus library alone at night, never park more than six spaces from your destination, never trust a stranger with a flat tire. never, never, never”.
Their pathological caution makes it even more horrifying when they are kidnapped and held captive in a cellar with two other women. A psychology professor named Jack Derber keeps them chained up for days, only taking them out of the cellar to torture them. Three years later Sarah, Tracy and Christine escape, but by then Jennifer was already gone.
Ten years later, Sarah has changed her name and has a successful career, but never leaves her apartment and continues to participate in stunted therapy sessions. It’s only when she learns that Jack might be paroled for good behaviour that she’s motivated to step outside and do what she can to keep him locked up. Jennifer’s body was never found, so Jack was only convicted on kidnapping charges. Sarah believes that the letters Jack still sends to his captives hold the clues to finding out what happened to Jennifer. Once she finds the body he can be convicted of murder and she believes she can finally come to terms with her friend’s death and the horror of what happened to them in that cellar.
Despite being grossly impaired by her pathologies Sarah embarks on an informal investigation that takes her down far more perverse paths than she expected. Between a present-day narrative and flashbacks to Sarah’s captivity in Jack’s cellar, The Never List tells a story of BDSM culture, torture and human cruelty.
Now, partly because I’ve read and watched a lot of mysteries crime thrillers, and partly because I often read them as a reviewer, I immediately start looking for potential twists and shocking conclusions. I find that many mysteries deal in devastation – it’s not so much about the complexity of a crime (as in a Sherlock Holmes mystery) but about how shocking and horrifying the crime can be. It’s hard to figure out the complex, Sherlock-Holmes-style crimes; It’s much easier to think of shocking twists and endings the author might have written. All you have to do is ask “what if?” and look for sadistic answers. I start asking “what if?” almost immediately and guessed two major reveals very early on. And as a result, I didn’t find this book as shocking as it probably intended to be. Certainly not Gillian-Flynn shocking, which is what the blurb promises. Not nearly as good as Gillian Flynn either.
But yes, I can be pedantic and over-analytical which is not a good thing if you’re going to read crime thrillers and want to be thrilled. Also, this book has other mysteries that I didn’t figure out, and it’s more than just a crime investigation. It’s also a story about a woman fighting against her psychological problems to punish the man who hurt her and achieve some kind of justice for his victims.
Sarah’s mental problems make it difficult for her to gather information. She has to leave her apartment which she hadn’t done in years. Once out in the world, she struggles to talk normally to people, simply because she’s out of practice. She avoids touching people, going out at night, going down narrow corridors to back rooms, getting into other people’s cars – myriad things that frequently force her to turn back instead of learning more.
It’s a good angle in theory, but for me Sarah wasn’t a strong enough character to keep me fully invested in the story. Of the three victims who escaped, Sarah has the most mental obstacles to overcome, yet she’s the least interesting of the narrators the author could have used. Christine and Tracy’s experiences were both more turbulent, yet both recovered more than Sarah did. Tracy in particular had a difficult childhood, mixed with a lot of subcultures, and became is an academic who could probably give us a better understanding of what Jack did to them and of the issues of torture and BDSM that come up.
Jack’s character is also neglected. We know he kidnapped the girls to torture them because torture fascinates him intellectually. We know he used their weaknesses against them, like telling Sarah that she could help Jennifer by enduring more pain. But we don’t know much more than this, and I think it’s a problem – you’re not given the chance to understand one of the novel’s most intriguing characters.
Sarah tells us that “On a good day, he simply did what he wanted with your body. […] On a bad day, he talked.” There are a few brief descriptions of the physical torture, but virtually nothing about what Jack said to them. It’s very likely that he chose Sarah and Jennifer because he knew about their pathological fear and caution, but this is never explored. In fact, the whole concept of ‘The Never List’ has no significance beyond the very beginning of the story. Also, Jack is a professor, and it’s obvious that all this torture has some kind of academic purpose, but we never find out exactly what that is. Why wasn’t that part of the initial investigation? Did everyone just assume Jack was nuts and chuck him in jail?
He remains a silent presence. While in jail he communicates only in vague, forgettable letters. Sarah thinks Jack has left clues about Jennifer’s body in those letters, but this barely amounts to anything. And we don’t learn anything about him during the flashbacks.
So, if you’re looking for a psychological thriller about a criminal psychopath, you’re not going to find it here. It focuses more on the psychology of the victims – Sarah’s PTSD, and her state of mind as a captive:
Captivity does things to you. it shows you how base an animal you can be. How you’d do anything to stay alive and suffer a little bit less than the day before.
I started hating myself for my weakness. I hated my body for what it couldn’t handle. I hated myself for begging and bringing myself low before this man. I dreamed at night of smashing his face, of rising up like a banshee, screaming, hysterical, full of strength. But then, inevitably, when, after days of starving me, he would come and feed me little bits of food from his own hands, I would suck it off his fingers like an animal, greedy, thankful and pathetic—a supplicant again.
The only variables I could register at that point were whether something caused me physical pain, or whether it alleviated the soulcrushing boredom of my day-to-day existence. By then I didn’t have much of an emotional range beyond that.
In addition to these details, the flashback narratives give us Tracy and Christine’s backstories in rather bland, extended info dumps. It’s hardly as “relentless” or “deeply disturbing” as the marketing blather claims Zan’s writing to be. The main mystery in the present-day narrative is similarly disappointing. It starts out well, then expands into unexpected territory, quickly sidelining the plot about finding Jennifer in favour of cults and criminal organisations, only to wander back to the Jennifer issue towards the disappointing ending.
Throw in a few deus ex machinas, implausible character behaviour (like Sarah meeting a relative stranger at a BDSM club at midnight), “shocking” revelations that don’t shock all that much, and it’s a pretty average thriller. It certainly doesn’t deserve the kind of hype it’s been getting lately. My advice – save it for a dull flight. It might seem more exciting that way.