Review: Amy Engel returns with thrilling ‘The Familiar Dark’

“The Familiar Dark” by Amy Engel (Dutton)

Love for another can change a person, making them stronger, more compassionate and more self-aware of how their behavior can reflect on their loved one.

Eve Taggert, a diner waitress in the impoverished town of Barren Springs in the Missouri Ozarks, knows first-hand how love can be transformative. Raised in a volatile home by a cruel, drug-dealing single mother with a “penchant for casual violence” and a string of brutal boyfriends, Eve went through her wild phase, not caring what people thought of her. After all, she reasoned, people already looked down on her. Her only stability in life has been her older brother, Cal, who protected her as a child and now as an adult.

Then Eve had Junie — the result of a one-night stand — and her world changed. Eve gave up drinking to excess and watched what she said and did so not to embarrass or reflect badly on Junie. But now 12-year-old Junie is dead — murdered along with her best friend, Izzy Logan, their bodies left in the town’s pathetic excuse of a playground. Now Eve isn’t concerned what anyone thinks of her, or if her investigation causes her harm, or worse. Without Junie, her life is “pointless,” leaving “a sharp, hard weapon in my gut.” Eve is out to get revenge for her daughter, tapping into the darkness within her that is as deep as the woods in which she was raised.

From its gripping beginning to its sobering finale, Amy Engel’s “The Familiar Dark” never fails to enthrall with surprising twists.

“The Familiar Dark” works well as a perceptive story about women surviving against odds, a mother’s unconditional love, as well as grief, poverty and classism. Eve, along with other characters, had no other options in life. Engel delivers a solid character study as she explores people — and a region — only sporadically appearing in fiction. Engel’s characters would have much in common with those in Gillian Flynn’s “Sharp Objects” or any Daniel Woodrell novel.

Engel began her writing career with two well-received young adult novels, following up in 2017 with the very dark adult novel “The Roanoke Girls.” With the engrossing “The Familiar Dark,” Engel again shows her strong storytelling skills and her empathy for characters.

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