They’re green like the oak leaves that hem in my childhood home, the longer I look at them, the more I feel the need to look away.
I had the opportunity to review Megan Collins’ debut novel The Winter Sister last year, and what a treat that was. This year, she returns with her sophomore offering Behind the Red Door, which is just as wonderful as her first. I would be hard-pressed to pick my favourite between the two; The Winter Sister was more of a melancholic read, where we lament the loss of a sister/daughter, and how such losses have the ability to break the ones who have to bear them. Behind the Red Door is steeped with the baggage of the past and one’s upbringing, emphasizing the need to remove ourselves from the trammels that reach out to haunt us, yet recognising that sometimes we are so entangled within them that this might not be possible.
Thus, doors are a major motif in the novel; we lock doors to keep things in, to protect ourselves, to erect a private wall that keeps us safe from that which haunts us. But a locked door is a barrier to the truth, so it needs to be opened if you want the light to come in. This is our protagonist Fern’s situation. When she was young, her father Ted would conduct experiments on her, and these experiments revolve around fear. Ted doesn’t seem to register how traumatising it is for a young child to have fear become a part of her day to day living, citing that there other greater fears he never imposed on her.
I felt this offered such a nuanced take on abuse and neglect. Oftentimes, parents feel that they can’t be labelled abusive because they never physically harmed their child. For Ted, he got it worst from his father, so in his eyes, Fern should count herself lucky he never treated her the same way. Abused children grow up and then perpetuate the cycle they were a part of when they become parents themselves, excusing their behaviour because it’s never as bad as their own experience. Fern is so starved of love from her parents that she is desperate for any morsel they can feed her, even if it’s crumbs on a dirty floor, frequently dropping everything to accede to their requests. This is how she ends up back in her hometown, helping Ted to pack up the house for his move to Florida.
Some readers might not understand how Fern can still love them despite how badly they treat her, but sometimes that is the nature of parent-child relationships. You can distance yourself and walk away, and convince yourself wholeheartedly there is nothing left for you in these relationships, yet there is a thread that still pulls, an echo that you respond to despite the answer of nothingness that awaits.
I guess it’s a kind of addiction – grasping for love in the dark.
For Fern, when she learns of the disappearance of Astrid Sullivan, who was taken when she was young and has been kidnapped again as an adult, the red of her hair and the chilling familiarity of her story leads Fern on a journey towards opening that locked door of her memories, to see what lies behind. The novel is a thriller, and while I had a sense of who I think kidnapped Astrid, Collins kept me spinning in her web till the very end, where my suspicions are confirmed.
I find this to be a more competent type of thriller, for what is the point of trotting out a perpetrator no one saw coming in order to offer a convoluted twist? It takes greater skill for the reader to perceive that they know who does it, yet still feel so compelled they need to run past swinging a bat at all the closed doors, to unearth every detail, to shine a light in every corner of the room, kicking up all the dust till the floors gleam with the truth.
I wanted to know everything, and Collins reveals it all gradually, and then in one fell swoop you do know everything, all while wishing you didn’t. How can these relationships and individuals be so casually toxic, you ask yourself, despite knowledge of how commonplace these dark portrayals of love are. It is the type of dark love that we ourselves are privy to. I feel my own locked door rattle and shake, the memories threatening to spill over…I hesitate, but reach over and remove the key. Sometimes doors stay locked for a reason.
Review copy provided.
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Collins crafts a narrative bristling with anxiety, where the scratching of a wrist hypnotically guides us to the dark secrets of the past, and unveils the wounds hidden beneath.
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