I’d put off reading this book. I wondered if a book about a girl joining a cult would be heavy-going or too obviously a cautionary tale of sorts. But, as it happens, it was neither. I actually wrote very few notes as I read it in a night, and the only thing leaping out of my jottings is the phrase ‘surprisingly riveting’ with several exclamation marks for good measure.See You In September
by Charity Norman
Published by Allen & Unwin
on June 1st 2017
Source: Allen & Unwin
Genres: Thriller / Suspense
It was supposed to be a short trip - a break in New Zealand before her best friend's wedding. But when Cassy waved goodbye to her parents, they never dreamed that it would be years before they'd see her again.
Having broken up with her boyfriend, Cassy accepts an invitation to stay in an idyllic farming collective. Overcome by the peace and beauty of the valley and swept up in the charisma of Justin, the community's leader, Cassy becomes convinced that she has to stay.
As Cassy becomes more and more entrenched in the group's rituals and beliefs, her frantic parents fight to bring her home - before Justin's prophesied Last Day can come to pass.
This book actually opens with Cassy’s mother Diana at the site of her daughter’s former home-cum-haven and she’s seeing first-hand, the outcome of the camp leader’s Last Day prophesies. So there’s a sense of trepidation from the moment the prologue ends and we rejoin Cassy, her mother and sister as they’re packing for the 21yr old’s overseas trip.
I engaged with Cassy straight away, though Norman puts us in both Diana and Cassy’s heads. Of course it’s hard to read this without a sense of cynicism and I kept trying to challenge myself to try to imagine being Cassy… unhappy with life and reaching out for something. It’s easy to watch something unfold from the outside and see the inherent dangers but far more difficult to imagine what leads someone to that point of desperation. Or temptation. There’d be no addiction or co-dependence or bad habits if people weren’t fragile and have many needs that we struggle to meet ourselves.
Littered through the book are a fictional cult expert’s pointers for mind control and Norman cleverly prefaces each chapter with the tactic the group is utilising at that point in Cassy’s recruitment. Again, we’re looking from the outside, so even when Cassy (very occasionally) prevaricates it’s hard not to want to reach in and shake her.
Of course the challenge of this book is that many of those who are part of the Gethsemane community are there for reasons that make sense. Even for the ‘right’ reasons. And at the end of the book – the camp’s spokesperson tries to stop the media demonising the camp and promote its commitment to sustainable living, self-sufficiency and sense of community.
It’s a reminder – as I’ve discovered in many books lately (and perhaps as a reflection of life in general in this increasingly online and angry world) – that it’s almost impossible to look at things in black and white. People aren’t necessarily good or bad. And they’re usually that way because of past experiences or ingrained perceptions. I think it says more about their character if they’re not prepared to accept others’ points of views or opinions AFTER enlightenment / access to new information and experiences.
This is a complete aside, but I’ll always remember a documentary I watched about racism and apartheid in South Africa. It was the mid 1990s and I was working as a volunteer in neighbouring Mozambique. The show was about a number of events and their repercussions. (Essentially acts of violence and retaliation.) Ultimately someone attempted mediation in the post-apartheid SA. I’ll never forget the words of white South African after meeting his son’s killers and (I guess) a bit of a change to the culture in his country. He knew nothing else, he said. Everyone in his life told him certain things about black Africans. He had no reason to doubt what they said as he’d grown up believing it to be true (they were all dumb, violent, dirty, savages). There were no dissuading voices. Until, things changed. He met black South Africans and was gobsmacked. These weren’t the people he’d been led to believe they were.
I watched this documentary with friends and there was much debate afterwards. Most of my friends at the time, were unable to forgive this man’s earlier attitude. On the other hand, it’s obviously had me pondering on the very topic for the 20-odd years since.
Which brings me back to my point (sorry!) and it’s about our ability – once we have the information we need – to be able to look at something from a range of viewpoints. To walk in someone else’s shoes as Atticus Finch and Harper Lee would suggest. Zealots exist everywhere. In religion, politics and in sport. This book reminded me of the importance of acceptance and of tolerance.
I also kinda liked that – though Justin had his foibles and fell into a few of the usual cult leader classics – Norman didn’t write him as a caricature. There were elements of what we come to expect from books and TV shows (and the odd documentary) but Justin and his followers were also just people looking for some peace and purpose; many starting afresh with their lives and others, born into the community…. knowing nothing else.
See You in September by Charity Norman was published in Australia by Allen & Unwin and is now available.
I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes.