See You in September by Charity Norman
Publisher: Allen and Unwin
Copyright Year: 2017
It was supposed to be just a short holiday… but when Cassy is lured to an idyllic valley called Gethsemane it’s years before her friends and family see her again. Can her family rescue her before it’s too late? A dazzling, gripping new novel about a young woman lured into a clutches of a doomsday cult by its charismatic leader, Justin.
Reviewer: Dawn Meredith
Charity Norman was born in Uganda and brought up in draughty vicarages in Yorkshire and Birmingham. Early in her life she travelled for several years, became a barrister specialising in crime and family law and later worked as a mediator. She finally took a break from the law to spend time with her family before moving to New Zealand. Her first novel, Freeing Grace, was published in 2010. Since then she’s had other novels published: Second Chances (2012) The Son-in-law (2013) and The Secret Life of Luke Livingstone (2015).
See You in September is a ‘dazzling gripping new novel about a young woman lured into the clutches of a doomsday cult’. Norman has created a thoroughly enjoyable story with well-rounded characters, great dialogue and interesting techniques which keep the pages turning.
Cassy is a naive young twenty-one-year-old who while travelling with her boyfriend Hamish and ends up pregnant and alone in New Zealand. She is targeted and taken in by a very friendly mob of people in a rusty van. Delighted by her newfound friends’ sympathy and compassion Cassy believes she can continue her journey to Taupo whenever she pleases. But the tentacles of the cult have already begun to change her thinking.
Norman’s research into cults is evident in the way she presents Cassy’s family, who are completely bamboozled by the change in their daughter and the behaviour of the doomsday cult members who live in an idyllic community called Gethsemane. Interspersed between the first thirty- three chapters are the eight steps to mind control from The Cult Leaders Manual. Whether this manual is fictitious or not, it is disturbing enough to feel very real. The use of this manual is an ingenious tactic on the part of the writer to create tension between what the reader knows yet the character doesn’t. The manual’s eight disconcerting steps reveal how vulnerable people can be manipulated so easily. For instance step three: Love Bombing. In a fractured world, unconditional love is a priceless commodity. Shower a new member with affection, admiration and attention. Make them into a beloved king or queen for a day, or a week, or for months – for as long as it takes. Many recruits will leave. Others will blossom. Some organisations routinely use physical or emotional attraction as an incentive to a new member to engage with the group. The power of sex, romance or a bond with a child can not be under-estimated.
Cassey is pregnant when the group takes her in and is partnered with a very kind and attractive man called Aden. Cassy feels fully accepted and supported. Just what the cult were hoping for. As her brainwashing continues Cassy’s resistance is gradually broken down until even the most traumatic event appears perfectly reasonable, such as the threat of her baby being removed from her if she does not consent to the cult leader Justin giving it a name. Cassy tries to resist, thinking she has the right to name her own child but ends up sobbing and repentant. The same occurs when she attempts to engage in birth control. The power and lure of the love of the group begin to wheedle their way into her consciousness. Part of the programming is to drive a wedge between Cassy and her family in England. The cult is successful at this, even concocting a story of physical abuse by her father which is completely untrue but which Cassy ends up believing.
While reading this book I was constantly thinking of young women, and to some extent young men, who unwittingly fall into the hands of such people. It’s no accident, no happy coincidence; it is a planned, methodical hunt. When Cassy’s family react with shock and anger at what is happening to their daughter, they are met with the passivity of her new way of thinking – no negativity, only love. By refusing to acknowledge her family’s place in her life Cassy successfully integrates into her new family.
Five years pass during which time Cassy is wed to Aden and bears him children. Her family’s attempts to contact her are met with stony resistance. Eventually Diana, Cassy’s mother, turns up at Gethsemane demanding to see her daughter. Cassy’s father also tries along with police officers who are sent in to assess the situation. Tension builds as the reader wants Cassy to break free but understand how she is held in place by the cult. When Justin’s teenage son Rome begins to doubt, he becomes an ally for Cassy to escape. When Cassy learns her father is dying of cancer, her loyalty is torn but she decides to leave Gethsemane for two weeks, fly home to England and be with her father in his last days. Rome is able to facilitate this escape but the price is heavy – he is physically abused and thrown out of the cult onto the streets.
As the doomsday cult moves towards its climatic end, with earthquakes facilitating a stronger belief in the end of the world and all bad news from the outside being fed to the inhabitants of Gethsemane, the tension between Cassy and her former self escalates. She is desperate to leave and take her husband and children with her. As Justin is finally revealed to be a simple human man with suspected brain cancer some followers fall away but his charismatic personality drags the remaining followers along in his wake. He eventually convinces a boatload of them to die with him in a massive explosion.
After the Gethsemane apocalypse Cassy, Aden, their children and quite a few others remain at the idyllic place trying to piece together a new life for themselves. Diana stays with them for a few weeks, enjoying her role as grandmother but finally has to leave. The ending is left rather open-ended. It allows for Cassy to have the best of both worlds – a gorgeous family of her own in an idyllic setting but without the harrowing control of the cult. The only downside is that this seems a little too convenient.
I love the way Norman draws the strings together, providing insight into the way various characters process what is happening and how their own background affects their thinking. For instance Mike, Cassy’s father, whom she finally gets to know in the last days of his life. From this we can draw some interesting parallels. Many assumptions are made about the people around us, even our own family and perhaps this is one vital message of the book. Communication. I would even recommend this book for teens. The story is told from a very loving point of view even though it tackles some hefty issues.