Book review: The Stranger by Kathryn Hore

(courtesy Allen & Unwin)

Renewal or revenge?

They are, of course, polar divergent opposite choices and the idea and impetus behind them form the beating heart of The Stranger by Kathyrn Hore, a stunningly evocative novel that asks which one will save you, if there is saving to be done at all, and which one will not.

It is nowhere near as simple a proposition as you might think with 16-year-old Chelsea, who, like the fellow residents of Darkwater, a walled off community set behind massive, supposedly protective gates, is facing a number of very hard choices.

No one wants to make them however with the townsfolk burying their collective heads, and blood-soaked hands by association, in the ever-dryer sandy soil of a town that was meant to keep them safe but which is now effectively a prison, one which they cannot leave because they are told the outside world is chaotically dangerous and which that world, possibly nowhere near as bas anymore as it’s made out to be, is increasingly unwilling, or uncaring about, to enter.

Darkwater is at a crossroads – trade has all but dried up because the town has nothing to give in return, food and water and goods of all kinds are near-tonon-existent, and the town’s misogynistic, authoritarian leader Granger, who rules by fear, intimidation and the unthinking hands of young thugs bent on survival above all else, having to resort to ever more violent means to keep a restive populace in tow.

But I’d never know the truth if I didn’t try to find it out and nobody from Darkwater was going to help me. I wanted to survive. I wanted more more than just to survive–I wanted to thrive, to really live, without being scared all the time. Like this woman [the Stranger] did. (P. 172)

Into this slowly simmering maelstrom of repressed and unspoken unhappiness, a utopia of security that is now all hype and no actuality, rides the Stranger of the title, her remarkable arrival, after a year of no one coming near Darkwater, all the more incredible because she is a woman, a gender which has been consigned to the very bottom of the social order by Granger who seems to be hellbent on living out some sort of sexist, twisted Western fantasy.

Refusing to bow to Granger or the men of the Council, all of whom turn a blind eye to the excesses of a leader who refuses to even acknowledge that Darkwater is sliding into an abyss from which it will not return, taking everyone with it, the Stranger soon gathers a following, most ardently and intrigued in ways that could spell a considerable fall from grace, Chelsea, who cannot believe a woman can be as well-equipped, brave and thoughtfully tough as the town’s visitor.

With talk that the outside world has recovered from the population decimating pandemic of some twenty years before, and proof that technology is still amply available, and that Granger’s neo-Western brutalist fantasy is well past its time, if it ever had one at all, the Stranger presents a potential seismic shift in a town too long enthrall to fear and the things that can be accomplished by an unprincipled, violent and abusive man who knows how to wield it to his advantage.

Chelsea is perhaps most beguiled by the no-nonsense, fearless ways of the Stranger because, as Granger’s latest teenage plaything, the latest in the long line of coercively controlled young women who are expected to dress nicely and be quiet and just nod (with the pay being food and water that no one else can access), she has life comforts but no sense of empowerment or freedom to chart her own destiny.

(courtesy official author site)

And clearly, though she talks of how lucky she is to be under Granger’s dubious care, invoking a mantra of survival above all whenever her frequent doubts surface – interestingly both her increasingly ineffective self-reassurance and her need to hold to it the poisoned chalice that is being Granger’s girl stem from the one thing, how her parents were cruelly treated – she wants more.

Much, MUCH more.

And even though she tells herself she can endanger what she has with Granger, which is not dying and not much else, she can’t help but draw close to the Stranger, and those with whom seems to share an affinity such as Mother Jones, the town’s healer who it turns out may have been someone altogether more amazing back before the world fell to pieces.

Chelsea, and Darkwater are about to change regardless of what Granger and his gang of ghouls, and it all comes in the end to revenge or renewal, to deciding whether you simply want to mete out some furious response to the terrors wrought against you, or whether you will leave it all behind, put fear to one side, and chart your own course where no one can tell you what to do.

I laughed loud.

The sound range throughout the hall. It was the first taste of real power I’d ever had. My laughter bouncing off stone, full of amazement that these useless, feeble old men had only moments earlier seemed so dangerous. They were unfit and ill-formed and so damn … ordinary. There was no power in them. There was no authority to be feared here. They were just old men, no different from anyone else. (P. 275)

A feminist Western with real emotional power and persuasive insight that holds to the idea throughout that those who oppress you only keep holding that power if you let them, and can be stripped of it if you walk away and leave to their own fetid hellhole of misogyny and coercion, The Stranger is absolute tour de force that entertains every bit as much as it challenges.

Yes, The Stranger is dark and troubling and ferociously intense, but it is also richly alive with hope and possibility, the latter two elements, once near-invisible in Darkwater, increasingly coming to the fore though not with out with some real muscular intent on behalf of its residents, especially people like Chelsea who have to be brave enough to put faith in the Stranger words and believe the world outside has the promise that their visitor says it does but also, more importantly, that they have the power within themselves to effect the change they crave.

The Stranger, whose links to the town go back far further and in far more bloody fashion that anyone first realises, save for Granger and his ilk, doesn’t promise to rescue them; instead she simply accelerates what’s already happening in the town and encourages people like Chelsea, Miss Kenzie the schoolteacher and others like Christian the hotelier and saloon operator, to stand up and be counted when the time comes.

An evocatively gritty tale of imprisoned people, most especially the women, being set free from fear of all kinds, with a queer thread throughout that sings of the power of freedom too, The Stranger is brilliantly good storytelling, a beguilingly well-spun narrative that maintains the tension of what is and what will be to an entrancing degree, and which shows what can happen when fear is outside, hope is taken up instead, and life begins again in ways that rewrite everything everyone has ever known for the better.

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