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JP Pomare. Photo/Supplied

In the Clearing: JP Pomare's thrilling take on an Australian cult

Inspired by a notorious Australian New Age cult, JP Pomare’s second novel is a tale of abduction and brainwashing that keeps readers off-balance.

A seven-year-old girl is snatched in the Australian countryside as she walks home from the bus stop after school. Under strict orders from her “family”, teenager Amy holds a dosed rag to the younger girl’s face until she stills inside the van. Her new sister, successfully collected.

Freya is a single mother both running from her past and looking to atone for parts of it while teaching yoga and living on an isolated property in rural Victoria with her six-year-old son. She hears news of a child abduction, then stumbles across trespassers frolicking on her property. Later, there’s a van parked by her road. Sinister omens, or her mind playing tricks?

After scooping international acclaim and last year’s Ngaio Marsh Award for Best First Novel with Call Me Evie, a nerve-jangling and claustrophobic thriller infused with literary flair, JP Pomare avoids any second-novel stumbles with his latest tale. In the Clearing cements Pomare’s status as one of our freshest talents – and addresses some similar themes of identity, psychological manipulation, and responses to trauma – while being more expansive in scope.

Pomare does a terrific job of keeping readers guessing throughout In the Clearing, both through the twisting storyline and the narratives of main characters Freya and Amy. Both protagonists seem incredibly candid at times – but can we really trust everything they say?

Freya admits she puts on a front for her fellow townsfolk. She expends great effort on her facade of “everyday working mother”, but beneath that she’s paranoid, fearful, and overprotective of her young son. Is someone out to get them, or is she the biggest danger herself?

Meanwhile, through Amy’s narrative and her diaries we learn about “The Clearing”, a countryside cult with a messianic mother figure that utilises violent punishments to ensure obedience and realign the children in its community back onto the path of “the Truth”.

The harrowing abuse involving Amy and other kids is even more chilling given Pomare took inspiration from notorious Australian cult The Family, ruled by Anne Hamilton-Byrne. What would you do in such a situation? Would you trade part of your own soul for survival?

Pomare, who was raised on a farm outside Rotorua and now lives in Melbourne, poses some interesting questions throughout In the Clearing, which is a disturbing yet compulsive read.

There’s a snap to Pomare’s prose and he conjures an arresting sense of people and place while keeping readers off-balance and unsure of quite where things may be heading. Throughout the novel, hope battles with, or perhaps balances, a delicious seam of foreboding.

A very fine thriller from a very fine author.

IN THE CLEARING, by JP Pomare (Hachette, $34.99)

This article was first published in the January 18, 2020 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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