Over the years, many novelists have learned that isolation can make for a gripping narrative. Think of Stephen King’s “Misery” or Paul Tremblay’s “The Cabin at the End of the World” – in both, a volatile combination of characters made for a gripping read, but the fact that those characters are confined to an isolated space ratchets up the tension dramatically. Last year, Rumaan Alam’s critically acclaimed “Leave the World Behind” offered a master class in how a remote location can make for a particularly haunting read.

Cover courtesy of Dutton

“Survival Instincts,” Maine resident Jen Waite’s first novel (she previously wrote a memoir about her failed marriage to a liar and a cheat), is about a lot of things – secrets, intimacy and familial bonds among them. Its plot finds three generations of women trapped in a New England cabin with a sociopath prone to violence, and its structure uses this unsettling scenario as a kind of temporal anchor as it recounts the recent and not-so-recent pasts of its central characters.

The action that sets “Survival Instincts” in motion is seemingly innocuous. Anne, the novel’s central character, suggests a weekend getaway to her mother, Rose, and her daughter, Thea. Anne works as a therapist, while Rose runs a successful bakery. Thea is 12 and – as is often the case with 12-year-olds – beginning to feud with her mother on a regular basis. Some of this is due to her age, but some of it has to do with a secret that Anne has kept from her – a kind of emotional danger that echoes the more literal danger mother, daughter and grandmother all find themselves in.

Waite focuses on each of these three characters in different chapters, and it’s in an early one where we learn something alarming about one of Thea’s teachers, Ted Redmond. “He had told her that she could call him Ted, at least when they were alone together,” Waite writes – not exactly appropriate behavior from a middle school teacher regarding one of his students. In flashbacks, Waite reveals more and more about this particular subplot, eventually taking it to an unexpected place.

The novel’s most immediate antagonist is its fourth major character, a man identified only as “The Man” for much of the book. This is the man who takes Anne, Rose and Thea captive; in flashbacks, we learn more and more about his unpleasant past, including upsetting dealings with both his mother and brother. It also becomes very clear that he’s done horrible things to a number of people in the past, and has been for many years.

The bulk of the scenes in the cabin feature a slow ratcheting up of tension, as Rose and Anne attempt to figure out a way to overpower their captor, and as he waits for the unconscious Thea to awaken. Gradually, Waite reveals more and more about Anne’s past, including her marriage to Thea’s father, Ethan – and her gradual realization that Ethan was a much more loathsome person than she initially realized. Though, to be fair, early in their courtship, he does jokingly say, “I have no soul.”

The time-hopping structure Waite uses makes for one especially memorable bit of plotting, in which information the reader is privy to reveals that one of the power dynamics in play at the cabin is not what it seems. It’s a bravura way of raising the tension in a surprising manner, and of taking the plot to an unexpected place. It also gradually illuminates the history that’s led to a rift between Anne and Thea – offering a believable reason for Anne to want to keep certain things hidden as well as a plausible explanation for how Thea would have discovered some of them on her own.

Not all of the structural elements work perfectly, however. Flashbacks revealing one character’s diagnosis of epilepsy arrive late in the narrative and end up making one aspect of the plot feel rushed. In the closing pages, Waite springs a number of revelations about how certain elements of this novel fit together; what had seemed like thematic connections between certain scenes turn out to be more literal. This, too, feels somewhat rushed, especially given how neatly much of what had come before had been staged.

Still, “Survival Instincts” makes for a compelling read overall. Waite parcels out the suspense in ways you might not expect, and does so with a cast of characters who – sociopaths aside – make for good company. At its best, it pulls off both a lived-in feel and a solid array of pulpy thrills; not a bad combination at all.

New York City resident Tobias Carroll is the author of three books: “Political Sign,” “Reel” and “Transitory.” He has reviewed books for the New York Times, Bookforum, the Star Tribune and elsewhere.


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