Book Review: The Roanoke Girls, Amy Engel (2017)

March 6th, 2017 7:00 am by Kelly Garbato

Not for the faint of heart.

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through Netgalley. Trigger warning for child abuse and violence against women, including rape, as well as suicide. This review contains clearly marked spoilers, but I tried to keep it as vague as possible.)

“Roanoke girls never last long around here.” She skipped along the hall, her voice growing fainter as she moved, like we were standing at opposite ends of a tunnel. “In the end, we either run or we die.”

My feelings for Allegra were never complicated. It didn’t matter if she acted crazy or made me angry or smothered me with devotion. In my whole life, she was the only person I simply loved. And I left her anyway.


Camilla Roanoke’s suicide doesn’t come as a surprise to her fifteen-year-old daughter Lane. For as long as she can remember, her mother has struggled with depression – not to mention alcoholism, mood swings, and blinding bouts of rage. Some days the tears come so fast and thick that they threaten to drown them both. So when she’s found dead in their NYC bathroom, bathrobe belt wrapped around her neck, Lane is more or less numb. Yet the cryptic note Camilla left behind – I tried to wait. I’m sorry. – puzzles Lane. The news that she has family – her mother’s parents, Yates and Lillian Roanoke – who aren’t merely willing to take Lane, but actually want her? Well, that’s the biggest shock of all.

Camilla rarely spoke of her life on the family estate, Roanoke, situated among the prairies and wheat fields of Osage Flats, Kansas. And there’s a damn good reason for it – one that Lane will discover during summer she turns sixteen. One hundred days of being a “Roanoke Girl” was all she could take before she fled Kansas – hopefully for good.


Eleven years later, a late-night phone call from her grandfather summons Lane back to Roanoke. Back home. Her cousin Allegra is missing, and Lane is determined to find out what happened. It’s the least she can do, for leaving Allegra behind all those years ago.

There’s no way to sugar-coat it: this is a seriously fucked-up story. Between the synopsis and early reviews, I had a pretty good idea of what I was getting into. Even so, Amy Engel still managed to shock me – mostly through the sheer extent of it all. I don’t want to give anything away, so I’ll try to be as vague as possible. But if you’d rather go in completely ignorant of the plot, maybe stop reading now?

** Caution: Spoilers ahead! **

There is rape, and incest, and mostly the two are not mutually exclusive. The relationship that started it all is a little murky, since both kids were, well, kids, but it becomes less so from there. Think: Josef Fritzl, but one whose prisons consist of kind words and loving gestures, instead of steel bars and locked doors. Or: an even more warped, inter-generational version of that genetic sexual attraction episode of Law & Order: SVU. The Roanoke Girls actually feels a lot like an episode of SVU, but with a gothic, down on the prairie spin (and more skillful writing, too).

My feelings about this book are complicated. On the one hand, I feel really icky about consuming a rape-fueled story line like so much entertainment. (Pretty similar to the feeling I get while watching SVU, fwiw.) And this one is really over-the-top and out there. Yet Engel handles it with surprising sensitivity and keen insight; The Roanoke Girls isn’t just a portrait of a highly dysfunctional and damaged family, but a window into rape culture, victim blaming, and male privilege and narcissism. In particular: her exploration of the way women turn on one another – rather than the men who do them wrong – is so on point. I mean, look no further than the hate-fueled dumpster fire that was the 2016 election season.

Thankfully, the rape is mostly hinted at, skirted around, approached from the margins, rather than described in graphic detail. Yet I don’t think this diminishes its impact at all; rather, it allows us to focus our attention where it belongs, on the victims, rather than dwelling on the more sensational aspects of the story. And in Lane – and Allegra, Camilla, Eleanor, Penelope, Sophia, and Jane – we see and feel the very real impact sexual abuse can have on young women. This is done especially well through Camilla, who initially comes off as a rather unlikable figure – emotionally and sometimes physically abusive toward Lane – yet by story’s end, we understand why. With Lane, we find understanding and even empathy.

I picked this book up on Halloween, thinking that it would be a scary read. It is, but not quite in the way I’d anticipated. It’s tense and horrifying, dark and twisted, and all but guaranteed to turn your stomach.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)


Comments (May contain spoilers!)

Diversity: The Roanoke Girls is a story about inter-generational incest, childhood sexual abuse, and rape, spanning some fifty years, and all at the hands of the Roanoke family patriarch, Yates. Yates has two sisters, Jane and Sophia; he develops a sexual relationship with each of them. Jane is only a year younger than Yates, making their affair consensual and a little murkier – but Sophia is four years younger, enough to qualify as statutory rape. Yates goes on to sexually abuse his daughter/niece, Penelope (fathered with Jane, who runs away after Penelope’s birth); two of three of his daughters, born to his wife, Lillian (Eleanor and Camilla; Lillian killed the youngest daughter, Emmeline, when she was six months old so that she wouldn’t have to “share” Yates with her); and his granddaughters/daughters, Allegra and Lane (born to Eleanor and Camilla, respectively). Additionally, Yates coerced (a presumably underage) Eleanor into “seducing” Charlie the ranch hand (some thirty years her senior) so that they’d be able to blackmail him into keeping the family secret.

As a consequence of the abuse, alcoholism, drug abuse, depression, anxiety, PTSD, suicide/suicidal ideation, self-injury, parental abuse/neglect, and sexual promiscuity run rampant in this family. For example, Camilla ran away when she was pregnant with MC Lane; but, seeing her abuser’s face in that of her daughter tormented Camilla, and she was emotionally and sometimes physically abusive to Lane. Camilla killed herself a few weeks before Lane’s sixteenth birthday, unable to hold out any longer.

Unplanned pregnancies are frequent and often end in abortions or miscarriages; Allegra, for example, miscarried several times before Tommy’s baby “took.” Lane gave birth to Cooper’s baby at sixteen, but gave her up for adoption.

Cooper’s father is physically abusive to his wife and children.

Animal-friendly elements: n/a


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