The Follower by Koethi Zan

The tricky second novel…

🙂 🙂 😐

As she is making her way back to university one evening, Julie is abducted. She is kept in a locked room and gradually learns a little about her captors. The man, James, is a fanatic who has created his own distorted religion and for a time had a small group of followers. All have since deserted him except for his wife Cora – a woman he has abused to the point where she is entirely submissive to him. Julie begins to wonder if somehow she can win Cora over, so that she will help her escape.

Alongside the story of Julie’s plight, we gradually learn Cora’s story – the troubled childhood and adolescence that led to her coming under the sway of the evil James. James himself is given no real backstory, so his motivation is left undeveloped – he’s simply a mad monster. The final strand of the book belongs to Adam, an ex-policeman who hunts for abducted women in his own time, as a kind of penance for the loss of his own sister to a predator before Adam was born.

The first third of this book is great and then I’m afraid it all begins to slide downhill, eventually landing with a crash which shatters the last remaining pieces of credibility. The quality of the writing is high and at first it builds a good level of tension. The storyline is very dark – Julie’s treatment in her captivity is horrific with repeated episodes of violence and rape, although happily Zan doesn’t make us watch the latter – it is implied rather than described. Each of the characters is deeply damaged except Julie, so it’s unfortunate that she’s so unlikeable. Despite the traumas she undergoes, I found it hard to empathise with her or, indeed, to care much what happened to her.

Cora’s story is perhaps more interesting and she is rather more empathetic during her teen years, when she is dragged around the country by her drunken father, never staying in any place long enough to put down roots or make friends. But sadly, her story gradually descends from being dark but credible, going straight past melodrama and on down to ridiculous. Adam never really comes to life as a character and feels rather tacked on, as if he exists only so that he can be around for the denouement – a denouement that regrettably becomes somewhat farcical.

The basic idea is good and the quality of the writing makes it quite readable. At first, the characterisation seems as if it’s going to be good too but somehow after a bit they stop ringing true. It all becomes a bit over the top – too many crazy people with poorly developed motivation. I think the problem is that none of it feels psychologically believable, and in the end I’m afraid they all begin to feel cartoonish. A pity, but now that Zan has the notoriously tricky second book out of the way, here’s hoping her next one will replicate the much higher standard she reached in her excellent first one, The Never List.

(PS I realise some people don’t mind a lot of swearing in novels, but plenty of others do, for various reasons, so it seems crazy to me that an author would put off potential purchasers and readers by including the f-word in the first line, exactly where a casual browser would look. Even stranger, given that actually the swearing content in the book as a whole is fairly low, with only the victim being consistently and obnoxiously foul-mouthed (which is a large part of what makes her so unlikeable, quite frankly). It’s up to writers, of course, but I’d assume most writers would want to reach a maximum audience, and putting a considerable number off with the first, in this case unrepresentative, line seems a bit silly…

FF’s Eighth Law: Swearing never attracts readers who wouldn’t otherwise read the book, but frequently puts off readers who otherwise would.)

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House Vintage.

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35 thoughts on “The Follower by Koethi Zan

  1. Ugh. Will definitely skip this one.

    I agree with you about swearing. While I’m used to it, thanks to a steady diet of young adult novels, putting the F-bomb in the first line is a turn off for me.

    • Yes, I was sorry not to be recommending this one after having loved her first book, but hopefully I’ll be recommending her next one at some point…

      I just find it so lazy – I don’t mind when it’s used sparingly but not just thrown in for effect. The effect it has on me is to put the book back on the shelf unread!

  2. Hmm. It sounds like a sort-of-okay low budget B-movie, which if it came on late at night when nothing else was on, you wouldn’t mind it too much. It seems that it could have potential to be quite a good psychological thriller and I think I remember one of the extracts in Bookish Selfie being quite good. It’s a shame. Second books are hard, let’s hope she pulls it together for number three! 🙂

    • Yes, I like her basic writing style – she has a lot of talent. This book kept being delayed and delayed, so I suspected there might be a problem with it. Sometimes the publishers should just draw a line and let the writer start something else when a book isn’t working – especially a new author, who doesn’t have a strong enough reputation yet to allow for the occasional misfire. I’m hoping the muted reaction to this one doesn’t put her off… 🙂

      • I feel for her, it’s so hard when you have expectations of publishers, critics and readers on your back when you are trying to write. The basic premise sounds quite good, it perhaps wasn’t the book she needed to write just now. I sincerely hope she dusts herself off, puts it down to experience and returns to form!

        • The publishers in particular put on the pressure, I think – they just want the next book selling and don’t seem to care much about whether it will damage the writer’s prospects in the long term. And whenever a book gets delayed and has name changes and so on, I’ve always found the end result isn’t good. But hopefully this one will do well enough to keep her encouraged – it’s not dreadful, it’s just not brilliant either…

  3. Sorry to hear that this was, in the end, a disappointment, FictionFan. It goes to show just how much characters matter. If there’s nothing to keep the reader interested, then, well, the reader won’t be interested. And, as you say, that means you simply stop caring what happens, especially if it gets too far from credibility…

    • Yes, it was a pity. The basic set up is interesting but in a book of ths kind the characterisation is everything and if it doesn’t ring trure, then unfortunately the book doesn’t really work. Still, she has a lot of talent so I’m hoping she’ll bounce back in her next one… 🙂

  4. I couldn’t agree more with your eighth law! I always judge a book and it’s writing by it’s first couple lines and I’d immediately put a book down if I read a first sentence like that…not because the f word necessarily bothers me, although I do think it’s overused and often unnecessay to get a point across, but because to put it in a first sentence indicates to me a certain tone and that the author is trying too hard to “shock” the reader with gimmicky language. Yes, I’d have all those judgements from a first sentence and the book would go back!! Great review FictionFan. I also have to add, your thought on this not being psychologically believable is a problem I’ve also had with some of my recent reads, well put.

    • Yes, if I’d picked this up randomly in a bookshop or library or checked the Kindle sample, I wouldn’t have read it – I only stuck with it because it was a review copy and I’d enjoyed her last one. But it seems so pointless to put a lot of readers off over something so trivial and unnecessary. I’ll make the point to the publishers when I send feedback, but I truly think they must have convinced themselves that crime novels must include lots of swearing – makes me wonder how they explain why more and more people are turning to golden age crime… *gets off soapbox*

      Thank you! 😀 I think the psychology has been stretched too much recently too – everyone’s trying to outdo the one before, I think, but I seem to mention credibility issues with half the books I read these days…

      • Me to for the ones I DNF and have given 2 & 3 stars to lately which unfortunately have been several of my recent reads. I think many readers like us are getting fed up and are on the hunt for more quality reads where the editors have done their jobs…at least I am:) BTW, I started Trophy Son and it’s very well-written and I’m enjoying it a lot

        • I’m glad it’s not just me! I’ve been feeling kinda grumpy about the quality of a lot of crime fiction for a couple of years now – sometimes I think the publishers and authors think quantity is more imporatnt than quality. But there’s no shortage of books, so I’d rather see a few dozen good ones come out each year than a few thousand bad or mediocre ones…

          Oh, that’s good to hear! I need to redo my schedule so I can fit it in sometime over tennis season… 😀

  5. I like your Eighth Law! I don’t mind swearing much in books so long as it suits the characters/situation, but when four-letter words are overused it can really limit the vocabulary. Plus, there are still writers who use overly-rough language to be cool or shocking and it sounds affected and silly. When I start laughing during the serious parts I know something has gone wrong.

    I remember the first time I saw the f-word in a novel as a kid. I snapped the book shut and looked over my shoulder before I kept reading! 🙂

    • Yes, I don’t have a hard and fast rule about it, but on the whole I think it’s rarely necessary and rarely adds anything. And in this case having the “goodie” be the foul-mouthed one backfired for me – I found I really didn’t want to spend much time in her company, since I had an urgent desire to wash her mouth out with soap and water! Ha! I remember hearing someone use it in the street when I was about four and innocently asking my mum what it meant – she made her views on using it crystal clear! Lesson learned… 😉

    • I do think there’s a large number of readers who dislike swearing in books – I regularly get comments left on my reviews on Amazon thanking me for mentioning it. Don’t understand why contemporary crime has to be so full of it! Haha – the other seven are dotted around on various reviews, some serious, some more jokey. I keep thinking I’ll bring them all together in a post one day – thanks for the push, I’ll maybe do it soon! 😀

  6. I’m going to steal your swearing Law for the after-schoolers, but replacing “readers” with “girls”!
    I think I’ll give this one a miss – there are enough real mad monsters in th world just now, without adding badly-written fictional ones to the mix.I require feel-good fiction, Plum, Christie, Prattchett……..

    • Ha! Yes! That’s partly why I object – we’re always encouraging young people to read and then when they do they get the impression that swearing is expected – it’s all so tedious. Yes, I was actually saying to Lucy that I feel I’m taking my bad mood out on the books I’m reading – I’ve noticed they’re all getting lower ratings than usual and I’m sure is to do with events rather than the books…

    • I haven’t read The Room but going on what I’ve heard of it, yes, there are some similarities. Though I suspect The Room might be more serious and less thrillery, perhaps…

    • I usually find a lot of swearing is just laziness on the part of the author – whenever I compare modern books full of swearing to classics where there’s none, I can’t help feeling the swearing adds nothing. Yes, I haven’t read The Room but it does sound like a similar premise, though I suspect The Room might be a bit less thrillery than this one, perhaps…

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