This is my review of The Followers by Rebecca Wait.
Drifting through life in a state of apathy bordering on depression, single parent Stephanie becomes dominated sexually and mentally by the magnetic Nathaniel who persuades her to join what turns out to be his religious cult, housed in a rundown, isolated moorland property called The Ark. This is much to the disgust of Stephanie’s spiky and perceptive twelve-year-old daughter Judith. Stephanie’s decision contributes to a chain of events leading to a shocking climax.
Following the common device of hooking the reader with a flash forward in the first chapter, we are introduced at the outset to a dysfunctional young adult Judith, reluctantly visiting Stephanie in jail where she is serving what sounds like a life sentence for a crime which has left her daughter understandably emotionally scarred. For quite a large part of the book, I would have preferred not to know this in advance, but was eventually won over by the author’s effective interweaving of “Before” and “After”.
Rebecca Wait is skilful in gradually revealing the chain of events, and in showing us the characters’ personalities and often confused thoughts. I was particularly struck by her portrayal of children, not just Judith on the verge of adolescence, but also those born and raised in the Ark who have been taught to view as an evil “Gehenna” the outside world which they have never experienced, even to the extent of walking down a street or watching TV. The gulf between the two worlds is continually shown through the by turns humorous and poignant interactions between Judith and Moses, the boy of her age who desperately wants to be her friend whilst clinging to the comfort of the beliefs she continually questions.
This is not merely a tension-building, gripping page turner but also a psychological drama exploring such issues as responsibility for one’s actions, dealing with conflicting values and guilt, and the extent of one’s duty to other people. I found the build-up to the climax too melodramatic, but it is arguably only reasonable that at this stage all the adults have become at least a little mad. Even given that Nathaniel had a talent for picking out weak and suggestible people, I was unconvinced that "the followers" would accept so meekly the increasingly erratic and extreme Nathaniel’s religious cant and manipulative ploys, but agree that there are plenty of real-world examples of a never fully explicable willingness to be controlled. It was chilling to read how the children had been conditioned, partly through knowing no other life.
Although most of the characters are insufficiently developed, one could argue that the story has been pared down to make a greater impact, leaving readers free, unlike the "followers", to reflect and draw conclusions for themselves.