Safe (2020) – S.K. Barnett

Title:Safe
Author:S.K. Barnett
Publisher/s:Century/Penguin Random House
Date published:2020
Star Rating:⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Disclaimer:Penguin Random House South Africa kindly sent me a copy in exchange for an honest review

Jenny Morrow Kristal was only six years old when she went missing from a quiet and safe neighborhood. Jenny’s mother had sent her to visit her friend Toni for a play-date but the little girl never arrived. Jenny then became nothing more than a faded child’s face on a Missing poster tacked to a notice board that people long since stopped staring at. Twelve years later and an eighteen year old Jenny walks into a police station claiming to have been kidnapped by two people known only (to Jenny) as ‘Mother’ and ‘Father’ whom she claimed sexually abused her, and from whom she finally managed to escape.

Reunited with her parents and brother Ben, Jenny spends the first night back home in her old room which is now just a sort of awkward spare room with a fold-out bed and a Playstation, and as she lies in the dark pondering her new life she hears Ben outside her room say something that will make her start wondering whether coming home was such a good idea. Something in the Kristal home seems off, and even though Jenny certainly has plenty of secrets of her own, it seems her family may have even more reason to be secretive. Though the first few weeks back are filled with the trauma of reporters begging for interviews and the police keen to find out what happened to Jenny all those years ago, nothing is as ominous as the life Jenny Kristal seemed to have lived before she was kidnapped. Her mind races with questions, the most notable one being why Ben doesn’t seem to be very happy with his sister’s return, and why he is constantly trying to match his own memories of their childhood with her own. He seemed to struggle for years with her disappearance according to his online ramblings. Is he testing her?

“Be careful. You’re not safe in that house.”

In addition to Ben’s suspicions, and her parent’s very obvious lack of suspicion, Jenny begins receiving messages on her Facebook account from an anonymous stranger warning her that she may no longer be safe in the Kristal’s home. Jenny also learns of a retired policeman who had tried unsuccessfully for years to make contact with her parents regarding her case, and whom they chose to ignore. Why? Instead of settling in Jenny feels more and more alienated by her new life, and by the Jenny that once was. Who was Jenny Kristal at six years old? Why did all her old neighbors in their individual testimonies refer to her as a “normal….sweet, adorable, six-year-old girl”, all using the exact same phrasing, and yet as Jenny investigates further it turns out she didn’t appear to have had any friends growing up at all? As more and more questions appear around every corner, and an anxious-ridden feeling permeates Jenny’s new life the names of other missing girls from all those years ago start coming up…

Barnett’s well-plotted thriller keeps the reader constantly guessing, and even when you think you have figured it all out you very quickly realize you do not in fact know anything at all. Much like the feeling of anxiety, Safe keeps you turning the pages nervously as you wait for all the lurking secrets to implode upon this clearly traumatized family. Memories, and how they can be manipulated and altered over time is a major device that allows for the constant feeling of unreliability. As with any good thriller the unknown is a major player, and the untrustworthy characters and a past filled with empty chasms makes for a nerve-wracking read.

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