Cults are scary things. Though most people have no experience of what it’s like to be in one- beyond the news headlines and survivor’s stories- there’s enough there to chill the blood. The things they do to control other people, and prey on the vulnerable, is genuinely scary, and that’s something Emma Dibdin captures so well in her new book, The Room by the Lake.
The good thing about this book is that it opens by establishing the central character and letting us understand just why she’s so vulnerable. Caitlin is English, but the death of her mother and an alcoholic father struggling to cope has pushed her all the way to New York, where she’s wandering the streets without family, friends or a job, looking for purpose. That’s when she meets Jake, a good-looking ex-soldier with a raft of issues- who seems to like her. He takes her upstate, to the wilderness to meet his family, however it quickly becomes apparent that this ‘family’ is a healing group run by the enigmatic Don, and Caitlin quickly gets sucked in.
Caitlin’s a well-drawn character: though she’s clearly adrift, she’s also likeable, and her backstory makes her actions completely understandable. Though she’s smart enough to know that something’s wrong within the group as time goes on, she’s desperate enough for love that it doesn’t matter at first, and desperate to prove herself by completing gruelling marathons without food, or doing multiple one-to-one sessions with Don, the group’s leader who doubles as a counsellor, letting the group work through past trauma to become better selves.
The group actually does seem harmless at first, and the members welcoming. Only my knowledge that it was a cult kept me suspicious: they all seemed really nice, and genuinely invested in Caitlin’s welfare. Don, too, is a good foil for Caitlin: he’s nice enough to seem completely harmless at first- enough for the reader to be taken in, too- but as his behaviour gradually grows more controlling, the tension starts to build. Long hikes, mysterious suicides and Don’s shadowy past gradually come to light, and that’s when things start to get dangerous.
The tension builds steadily throughout the novel as events escalate, and Caitlin becomes more and more suspicious, growing to a climax when she tries to leave the group for the first time. The scary thing is that you genuinely don’t know what’s real and what’s not, and whether she’ll make it out or get sucked into the cult for good. Emma Dibdin has done such a good job of establishing how fragile she is, that it’s totally plausible, and that makes for a nail-biting finale- though the ending I thought was a bit of an anticlimax.
Though it can at times be a hard read, I did enjoy this book. If you’re looking for a new twist on the psychological thriller, then you don’t get much more pyschological than a cult. If you like some excitement with your poolside read this summer, then I’d definitely recommend it!
Book cover taken from Goodreads.