CRIME CULTURE: Using Anne Hamilton-Byrne’s infamous The Family cult as inspiration, Melbourne-based author J. P. Pomare has produced another stunning thriller on the back of his heralded debut novel Call Me Evie, writes G. L. Marlowe.
“I love children”.
Without knowing any context those three words are inherently creepy when left on their own. Knowing the context makes them even worse. J. P. Pomare attributes this statement to Anne Hamilton-Byrne in the epigraph to his latest book In the Clearing.
Before talking about this phenomenal book, the influence of The Family must be examined as it plays a vital role in the creation and understanding of the novel.
The Family was an Australian new age cult started in the mid-60s led by the enigmatic yoga instructor, Anne Hamilton-Byrne. In true cult fashion the compounds of The Family were rife with abuse, the use of LSD (whether consensual or not), and a complete and utter manipulation of systems meant to protect children and the vulnerable.
Most adult members were recruited through Hamilton-Byrne’s yoga classes, with members made up of professionals including nurses, doctors, lawyers and social workers. Their philosophy centred around the belief that Hamilton-Byrne was the reincarnation of Jesus Christ mixed in with other elements of Christianity and Hinduism combined with other Eastern and Western religions (and a complete misunderstanding and bastardisation of them all) and good old fear of aliens seen in so many cults around the 1970s. The Family were the chosen ones, who would survive the apocalypse and alien invasion and would eventually re-educate the world.
However, most famously, their infamous leader collected children. These children were obtained through dodgy adoptions through her followers in the social work, medical and legal fields. Some of them were born to other members and were “fostered”. Others were taken from hospitals as babies through the forging of official documents. 28 children were known to have been part of The Family, although it is possible others have not come forward. During the 1987 police raids six children were removed. All believed that Hamilton-Byrne was their mother and Messiah. Their identities were changed making identifying them difficult. They had all been drugged throughout their short lives, starved and abused. The most well-known pictures of the children show them dressed in matching white and blue clothes, dyed blonde bob haircuts, standing in two lines.
J. P. Pomare takes this cult and creates the psychological thriller in his sophomore novel, set in “the Clearing”, home of the Blackmarsh cult, a fictionalised interpretation of The Family. Much like their real life counterparts, the children they believe their leader Adrienne is the saviour of mankind and their mother. Although Adrienne’s means of procuring children is through even more nefarious means. Opening with the kidnapping of a young girl, In the Clearing examines the depths people will go to in order to protect their way of life and what they believe to be right.
Told in dual perspective from psychologically fractured, single mother, Freya, and young cult member, Amy, licking back and forth until culminating in a tragedy leaving the reader scrabbling to separate fact from fiction in both of character’s accounts. This confusing notion of truth is continued throughout as Pomare’s masterful use of real world allusions embedded in the book cause the reader to tease the fiction of the Clearing away from the real events in the compound of Kai Lama. Fiction here, confronts what has been dulled by the passage of time and examines forgotten wounds in Australia’s often dark history. Fiction has the ability to speculate, imagine and consider what may have been left out and answer those questions of “what if?”
Fiction has the ability to expose readers to the brutality of people, expose the darkest recesses of the human mind but allows a screen of protection. One that allows us to put down the book, pause for a moment, and remind ourselves that this isn’t real. Although lurking in the background is this thought of “what if it was?” or “what if this was or is real for someone?”
The perspective of Amy, indoctrinated by the cult, reaching the age where she begins to question the beliefs she once held dear (in a convincingly teenage way) instils an automatic sense of dread. Pomare has crafted the day to day activities of Blackmarsh through a lens of childish innocence that prevents the character but not the reader from picking up red flags. From the start a sense of dread formed a pit in my stomach. That dread and tension only ramps up the further you emerge yourself into the book, which enhances its grip on the reader. It’s one of those books that you want to pluck the character’s out of, to give them a hug and tell them things will be alright even when you know it won’t. Not knowing the story of The Family doesn’t impact the immersion in the book, it just adds to the anticipation of what’s to come.
From page one I was hooked. I received the book on Tuesday. Started it on the commute to work on Wednesday. Finished it on the commute home on Thursday. I read it on the train. I read it in bed. I read it when I probably should have been working. This book had some of my favourite crime fiction elements: small towns, people who know too much and talk to little, and unreliable narrators.
Layers of memory, ideology and trauma are stripped back to get to the truth with the boundaries between the objective and subjective blurring. The reader must decipher the truth from the layers of manipulation, memory tampering, and an unwillingness to admit to past mistakes.
Seeking the truth is dangerous especially when there are so many false prophets claiming to have the answers. Pomare highlights the very real dangers of unquestioning devotion to charismatic leaders and flawed ideologies. While the present world is continuing to search for the meaning of life and better ways of living, manipulation and control are often exerted by those we trust the most.
After all, family knows what buttons to push and where the bodies are buried.