The Never List never really got off the ground for me, although the premise had a lot of potential. Koethi Zan’s debut novel is the story of Sarah, a reclusive young woman who is still suffering from the psychological scars of having been held captive by a sadist, Dr. Jack Derber.
There were four of us down there for the first thirty-two months and eleven days of our captivity. And then, very suddenly and without warning, there were three. Even though the fourth person hadn’t made any noise at all in several months, the room got very quiet when she was gone. For a long time after that, we sat in silence, in the dark, wondering which of us would be next in the box.
That was ten years ago. Now Sarah is living a quiet life as Caroline. She’s an actuary in New York City (specifically chosen so that there would always be a lot of people around). Her therapy is at a standstill, she doesn’t have any meaningful relationships (unless you count Jim McCordy, an FBI agent) and she rarely leaves her apartment. Every so often Jack Derber sends Sarah a letter from prison, and it’s the latest letter and the fact that Jack’s parole hearing is coming up that sends Sarah digging into her past.
The novel’s title comes from Sarah and her best friend Jennifer’s ‘never list.’ The two girls, friends since childhood, had compiled a list of all the things they should avoid in order to lead a safe life: “never go to the campus library alone at night, never park more than six spaces from your destination, never trust a stranger with a flat tire. Never, never, never.”
Sarah’s decision to speak at Jack’s parole hearing, even though the thought of facing Jack again fills her with dread, is prompted by her love for Jennifer, who was the girl in the box and whose body was never recovered from Jack’s remote house, where the girls were kept chained in the cellar.
So, the ingredients for a creepy, twisted thriller, are certainly there, but there are lots of things that didn’t work. For one, too many characters and sub plots that just all come together in a rather unsatisfying way in the end. Also, Sarah’s character development was unbelievable. Can the reader really be expected to believe that a woman who is afraid to drive alone in the dark, will actually lead her fellow survivors back to the very place where they’d been held prisoner? Without police? Cue eye roll. And these reserves of strength come out of the blue.
Jack Derber is only seen through the eyes of other characters, so he is never really a threat. Whatever he was doing to those women – none of it is described. I don’t necessarily need to hear all the graphic details – I’ve got a pretty good imagination – but other than ‘the rack’ it’s all pretty vague. Likewise, a trip to a BDSM club is pretty vanilla. And although there is clearly something going on, with Jack Derber still safely behind bars Sarah (and the reader) hardly needs to worry about him.
Some readers will probably be genuinely freaked out by The Never List. For me, it was just okay.