January 19, 1852.
The day when the temperature dropped to an impossible 31 degrees below in a matter of hours and the mercury froze in its gauge and a violent, piercing wind blew across the field and through the woods, breaking the family’s windows in…
Henrietta and Jane are growing up in a farmhouse on the outskirts of town, their mother a remote artist, their father in thrall to the folklore and legend of their corner of New England. When Henrietta falls under the spell of Kaus, an outsider and petty criminal, Jane takes to trailing the couple, spying on their trysts, until one night, Henrietta vanishes into the woods.
Elspeth and Claire are sisters separated by an ocean. Elspeth’s pregnancy at seventeen meant she was quickly married and sent away from her Scottish village to make a new life in America. When she comes to the attention of the local mill owner, a series of wrenching and violent events unfolds, culminating in her disappearance.
As Jane and Claire search in their own times for their missing sisters, each uncovers the strange legend of Cold Friday, and of a family apparently transformed into coyotes. But what does this myth really mean? Are their sisters dead, destroyed by the men who desired them? Or have they made new lives, elsewhere, beyond the watchful eyes of the community they longed to escape?
Myths seem to be everywhere in fiction at the moment. From feminist re-tellings of classical mythology such as Madeline Miller’s Circe and Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls to poetic explorations of folklore in Daisy Johnson’s Everything Under and Kerry Andrew’s Swansong. They are testaments to the stories that we tell ourselves, something that Abi Maxwell both explores and subverts in The Den, a lyrical coming-of-age story that plays with ideas of both myth and memory.
Set across two timelines, The Den explores the lives of two sets of sisters living in rural New Hampshire one and a half centuries apart. As the girls navigate the societal expectations of their roles and behaviour, they are forced to confront difficult truths about themselves and the world around them. And when two of the women disappear, their remaining sisters struggle to make sense of what has been left behind. As myth blends into reality, finding the truth behind the women’s disappearances becomes a search for peace the impacts the adult lives of both of the remaining girls.
The Den is a haunting, lyrical novel that moves glacially. Yet from the outset, there is a momentum to the book that is bought by the magnetic portraits of sisters, Jane and Henrietta. Once close, the girls have begun to drift apart as Henrietta grows into adulthood and starts a relationship with a neighbourhood boy. In her reluctance to let her sister go, watchful, restive Jane makes a fatal mistake that will have far-reaching consequences for both girls.
Almost a century and a half earlier, Claire becomes worried when the regular letters from her sister Elspeth, an ocean away in New England, cease. Elspeth had been making a new life for herself but now it seems that both she and her family have vanished leaving nothing but ghosts in the shape of coyotes behind. As Claire sets out for America to find out the truth behind her sister’s disappearance, she is confronted with strange tales and a fiction written in Elspeth’s own hand.
All four of the women in The Den are fascinating characters but it is the missing women, Elspeth and Henrietta, who command the attention of both the reader and of the sisters that they leave behind. Both girls are women out of their own time, pushing against the boundaries of a society that cannot contain them. As such, they have a hypnotic quality reminiscent of the Lisbon girls in Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides. More conventional in their beliefs, Claire and Jane struggle to understand their respective sister’s dissatisfaction, and it is this struggle for comprehension and understanding that powers the novel.
As I mentioned earlier, the novel is slow in pace, especially at the start so it won’t be for everyone. Stick with The Den, however, and Maxwell’s gorgeous prose, lush landscapes and sharply drawn characters will weave their spell. Meditating on love, loss, escape, and sisterhood, The Den is a haunting novel written with great skill and precision that will richly reward patient readers and is perfect for fans of Marilynne Robinson, or those who enjoyed Emma Kline’s The Girls.
The Den by Abi Maxwell is published by Tinder Press on 16 May 2019 and is available from all good bookstores and online retailers including Hive, Waterstones, Book Depository and Amazon. My thanks go to the publisher for a copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review.
The blog tour continues until 24 May 2019 so do check out other stops on the way for more reviews and content about the book. Thanks to Anne Cater from Random Things Tours for organising and inviting me to take part in the tour.