Brace yourselves and dive into this masterfully written (apocalyptic) thriller by Tosca Lee
Alaskan exterior, June. A pig farmer calls his sow, Jill, but she doesn’t show up. He finds it unusual and walks deep into the forest to look for her. Eventually he finds a carcass, possibly a caribou, that has been badly bitten by a pig. Jill is nearby with a fresh litter of piglets. The farmer brushes the episode off thinking what they say about pigs is true: they eat everything. Two days later he finds her with her belly torn open and her piglets savaged around her.
The scene changes. We are no longer in Alaska, but in a mysterious compound that that appears to be some sort of prison. It is, in a way. A girl, whose name is Wynter, is escorted by two Guardians. Is she going to die? The whole set up looks like an execution is about to take place. Wynter keeps walking with nothing more than a plastic bag in her hands, no one around her talks, and she is having a million thoughts a minute, the most recurrent being ‘I am about to go to Hell.” Her sister Jaclyn and her niece Truly are standing not far, silent, eyes casted. Wynter wants to say something meaningful to Truly before whatever fate is expecting her, but the little girl runs away and she instinctively tries to get her. The efforts to kick her out of the compound are doubled and when she crosses the gates, desperation gets her. But there is a car waiting for her in the distance. Maybe it’s not all lost.
Suddenly, a step back in time. Wynter is 22 when she’s expelled from the compound, but the story goes back to the day she entered the compound for the first time. She was 9 and her sister Jacklyn was 12. Their mother, Sylvia, brought them there to escape from an abusive husband. Julie, her mother’s best friend, tried to convince her to find another solution and offered her help and shelter, but Julie refused, certain of what she was doing. They are going to leave at New Earth, an enclave in the middle of nowhere, Iowa, where they will find peace and freedom. When they arrive, they are settled in what will later be known as the guests’ house: all new arrivals are placed there when they enter the community. They are separated from all the negative things they brought with them from the outside (clothes, technology, wealth), given a strict set of rules to follow and accept a new lifestyle, made of prayer, blind faith in their leader and communal spirit. These are the ‘only’ things that Magnus, the New Prophet and spiritual leader of the cult asks his family. The inhabitants of New Earth are God’s chosen few, the only ones that will be saved when the world ends. And the world will end soon, Magnus insists. That’s why they must be prepared and extra careful with what they do, eat, think, believe.
After a trial period, Sylvia and her daughters are asked to stay. They are relocated from the guests’ house and separated. Jaclyn goes to the young women’s dormitory and Wynter to the girls’ one. Mom is moved to a barrow for single women that everyone calls the Factory and which the two girls aren’t allowed to visit. When their mother become sick, they are told only so they can pray and repent, because their mother’s illness is due to the negativity that still exists in their life. Sylvia dies of cancer anyway, and not because of the negativity in their life, but because she didn’t receive the necessary treatments.
During her permanence there, Wynter meets new people that want to enter the New Earth compound, and one of them is Shae. When Shae and her father arrive, Wynter is the one that welcomes them. She likes this new girl, they are the same age and she is magnetic. Shae is the typical rebellious teenager: five studs in each ear, smokes weed, her hair is half shaved half long, the ensemble giving her a feral look. There is something in Shae that Wynter feeds of. They listen to music together on Shae’s phone and look at pictures of her boyfriend and the ocean. It’s their secret, and for Wynter it’s very important, as she finally feels she belongs somewhere. It doesn’t matter what she does and how hard she tries, because she is never enough for New Earth. It takes her far longer than others to actually be allowed to go out the compound to work. As a matter of fact, the New Earth community is a corporation whose purpose is to save and trade ancient seeds and avoid their extinction. Some of the members are allowed to go to the nearby city to sell these seeds and other homemade products. But they need to be worthy, faithful and their outing has to be approved by the Elders and Magnus. After Shae and her father are asked to stay, she repents and confesses all the forbidden things she did with Wynter. Suddenly Wynter loses Shae, the little privilege she had and she has to spend a lot of time isolated, thinking about her sins. What she doesn’t see is that Shae is not a sudden convert, but she is only waiting for the right opportunity to escape. And she does. Shae is quickly assigned to outside work; one day she gets the petty cash from the sales and runs away.
Not long after Kestral, Magnum’s wife, dies. It’s a shock, especially because Kestral is the first person Wynter and her family met when they arrived and became a motherly figure when Sylvia passed away. Magnus, though, can’t stay unmarried. Soon his weeding with Jaclyn is announced. And so is Wynter’s wedding. With Shae’s dad. It’s another shocking news to absorb, but somehow Wynter manages to escape her fate, while Jaclyn becomes Magnus’s new wife and gives him a daughter.
Five years after these events, Wynter is eventually expelled for good.
In the car waiting for her outside is Julie, her mom’s best friend in a previous life. Behind the wheel there is Lauren, Julie’s stepdaughter. She remarried with Ken, Lauren’s father, when Lauren was one, but Wynter has no memory of that.
The outside world is a strange place, and Wynter must get used to a whole lot of new things, like the Internet, smartphones, driving, no rules to follow. She starts seeing a therapist too, and she finds out that New Earth International is on the radar of different watchdogs for being a cult, and that Kestral is not actually dead.
Back to the crazy pigs at the beginning of the story. Their farmer died and so did two of his friends. There’s a mysterious dementia-like disease spreading. A researcher finds out that the farmer liked to fry eggs and brains after a slaughter and when he examines the samples, he knows he’s onto something big. But after two days all his samples are gone.
The disease is spreading rapidly and it seems like people are virally going crazy. But it won’t be until the end that we find out about the link between the spreading dementia and New Earth, in an explosive end.
What’s even more mind-blowing is the fact that, at a certain point within the story Ken, Julie’s husband, instructs his wife to get extra supplies of food and petrol, use masks and gloves when she leaves the house, wash her hands regularly and disinfect everything. The book is dated 2018, something I had to check several times. The fact that it depicts very vividly what we’ve gone through over the past couple of years simply gave me goosebumps.
Besides the incredible closeness to what happened in real life, this book is a concentrate of fast-paced action, ups and downs and witty dialogues. The theme of being part of a cult and subsequently escaping is discussed with simplicity and lack of judgment, while the rest of the story – when Wynter is out of the compound and does her bit to help save the world – is worthy of the greatest horror masters.
The line between is highly imaginative, with a captivating, fresh prose and a catchy two-part structure. One plot line starts in the present (When Wynter is thrown out of the compound) and moves forward, while the other starts in the past and moves back and forth. It never misses a beat, though, and each time the reader is provided with new bits of information that help put together the bigger picture, just like a puzzle. Tosca Lee is simply magistral in never losing a thread. A 5/5 book that’s difficult to put down.
To find out more about Tosca Lee’s work, visit her website toscalee.com