by Rebecca Wait
A compelling and absorbing tale of a woman’s slow absorption into an isolated religious cult and her daughter’s lonely, internal, un-realised rebellion against her mother, the cult, and its charismatic, egoistic leader, the sinister Nathaniel.
The story begins with twenty-two year old Judith’s prison visits to her all-too normal mother. They discuss the films they have seen, birthdays, domestic details. They never talk about why Judith’s mum is in prison, about The Ark and the rapid descent into madness, bloodshed and violence. When her mum says ‘see you next month’, Judith replies ‘of course’. She has been coming for eight years. She might fantasise about never coming again, leaving the past behind – and the alcohol, and the numbing drugs – and making a new life for herself, but somehow never seems able to take that step.
The narrative then takes us back in time. Judith is about thirteen, her single-mother Stephanie is working in a cafe when she first meets Nathaniel. Nathaniel seems to be the object of every woman’s fancy, though Judith can never quite see his allure, how he maintains his hold on others. She never feels the dark charisma that has persuaded a group of intelligent adults to throw up their lives and give everything – including their bodies and wombs in the case of the females – to Nathaniel. There are children too, all born in the cult, none have ever left The Ark’s three wind-battered buildings on the moors. Some of these children are Nathaniel’s and now Nathaniel wants more.
Judith hates The Ark. All she wants to do is leave. Her only friend there is Moses, a boy spurned by the other children because his face is stained with a birthmark: the mark of the devil.
The cult itself is something of a mystery and probably the weakest part of the tale. How does one man exert such glamour he is able to rule a band of intelligent adults so effectively and completely? Nathaniel is a little like Jim Jones, David Koresh, Charles Manson – men who exert absolute control through force of personality. It’s a difficult concept, hard to understand for anyone who has not experienced it (and so few who have ever live to tell their tale). It’s very hard to convey in a novel – I don’t think I’ve ever seen it done entirely convincingly, but this almost works. I almost believed in Nathaniel.
Written in a sparse, dry, gripping style, Rebecca Wait’s story burns slowly but is never less than utterly compelling as it reaches its appalling conclusion and fallout – which surprised me; I thought I had it figured out and I was wrong. Start to finish, I was riveted.