Eleanor Wasserberg‘s debut, Foxlowe (Fourth Estate, review copy from NetGalley) is a chilling portrayal of physical and psychological abuse, and the legacy they can leave. Set in a Utopian but poverty-stricken New Age commune of artists and bohemians, it follows the Family, and their shifting power dynamics and relationships, as people arrive and leave.
The story is told through the eyes of Green, a young girl growing up in the commune. All she knows is Foxlowe, the Family, and its rules and customs. She’s received no formal education, with her parents, Richard and Freya (two of the Founders of Foxlowe) firmly believing that it is better to raise Green and the other children off-grid and more closely in tune with nature. Green’s existence is bounded by the seasons and rituals built around the local ley lines, standing stones and a strange phenomenon whereby at the solstice the sun appears to briefly rise again after setting behind the local hills. Above all, Green has been raised to fear The Bad, an existential evil that contaminates and can only be driven out by the proper rituals.
As a child Green secretly puts Blue, the new baby, outside a supposedly protective salt circle, leading Green to believe she is responsible for infecting Blue with The Bad. Green’s mother, Freya, is an abuser. There is a truly horrifying description in Foxlowe of the time Freya makes Green take the ‘Spike Walk’: walking along a narrow passage lined with old, rusty picture nails that scratch and tear the flesh. Freya is not satisfied until sufficient blood has been shed to punish, cause pain and supposedly hold The Bad at bay for a while. Desperate for Freya’s love and approval, Green comes to believe she deserves the abuse she experiences, and becomes complicit in the abuse of others, with inevitable tragic consequences.
One of the strengths of the novel is the way Wasserberg conveys the horror of Foxlowe through the perspective of a limited first person narrator. We see the horror, but Green does not comprehend it. When Green eventually leaves Foxlowe she struggles to adjust to life in the outside world. Her sheltered upbringing means she is ill equipped to navigate it, and, carrying extreme levels of guilt, she cannot see herself as victim, or her beloved Freya as abuser. There are few things as taboo in our society as a mother who abuses her children, and we instinctively recoil from Freya, but Green forces us to see her creativity and compassion (albeit it manifests in a twisted way). Rightly or wrongly, Green loves Freya.
Foxlowe is an accomplished and thought-provoking debut.
Goodreads rating: 4*