This is not a fairy tale. This is not a horror story either. This is an atypical love story born out of an unimaginable nightmare and held together by all that is positive in a human soul. You’ll be shocked, saddened, nauseated at times, revolted by the apparent cruelty that can mar a human heart, but you’ll also learn to find unexpected beauty in the most horrific of situations, to hold onto slivers of hope when none appear to exist. This is a story that will challenge every single preconception you might have about what constitutes love. And then slowly redefine it.
A girl is kidnapped. Taken far away from her home. Held captive in a dark room with no hope of escape. She is treated as an object, degraded, debased, held in a constant state of fear and anxiety. Her body is used, abused and treated as no longer her own to command. Her captor wishes to break her emotionally, make her inherently obedient and malleable to his every whim. But her captor is no ordinary monster. He was an abused child himself, hungry for vengeance and wishing to use his captive as a means to that very end.
“There was only one obstacle remaining between him and vengeance. The last true test of his soullessness – willfully stripping someone of their freedom.”
Caleb is a monster in every possible way, his actions make our skin crawl and make us wish we could punch his face repeatedly, but the more we learn about him, the more human he becomes in our eyes and the less of a monster. We begin to understand his motivations, sympathise with them, find justification for his actions, but we still hate him for every single thing he does to our heroine.
“Caleb was a strange person, cruel and inhuman; a monster, and yet, at other times, he seemed so capable of something like caring. He made me cry and scream and shake with fear and nearly a split second later he could make me almost believe he wasn’t responsible for any of it. He could hold me and make me feel safe.”
Livvie is perhaps one of the most exceptional and surprising female characters I have ever encountered. She is presented with every woman’s worse nightmare, but instead of allowing it to break her, shatter her inner strength and make her lose the will to live, it somehow only makes her stronger. While being a frightened and resigned young girl in her previous life, adversity only seems to awaken the brave woman in her, the woman that never allows her captor to change who she is. She fights him, defies him, shows bouts of obedience and willingness to comply with his orders, but they are always short-lived. She is a young woman starving to be loved, who was never shown real affection by those who were meant to love her unconditionally, but who somehow has an endless capacity to love. She can always see the goodness in those around her, even when it is disguised under the mask of a monster, and that is why she can see the man that Caleb is and should be rather than the one that he presents himself as being.
“I was always seeking shelter in the people who hurt me the most. My mother. My father. Caleb. Like a battered dog begging for love from a malicious master. It was all I knew.”
What comes most unexpectedly in this story is the mutual bond that is created between Caleb and Livvie. While it initially appears as a classic case of Stockholm syndrome, where Livvie starts perceiving moments of lack of abuse from Caleb as acts of kindness, and bonds with him as an innate response to the trauma in becoming a victim, their relationship slowly becomes not so easy to define. Born out of ugliness, a unique bond is forged between them and it is completely bilateral. It’s a bond that should not be. A bond that scares us, makes us uneasy, but it also manages to arouse us, stir the romantic in us, make us hope that something beautiful could be born out of such utter evil. The more the story develops, the more their bond grows and becomes unbreakable. These characters are stripped to their barest, most primal qualities; they fall in love with each other in the dark, when nothing else around them is visible or present. They fall in love by choice and they allow it to happen knowing all the odds are against them.
“In the dark, my master let down his guard and he was Caleb again. He didn’t correct me. He didn’t punish me. He didn’t push me away emotionally. Caleb was there to hold me until the nightmares passed. He was there to tell me I was beautiful. He was there to tell me I was going to be okay. In the dark, he seduced me. I didn’t want the seduction to end.”
While this story is unique in its own right, it is not the story itself that makes it so overwhelmingly incredible. It’s genius rests entirely in the effect it has on the reader. Ms Roberts took a monstrous act of violence against a helpless human being and somehow turned it into one of the most beautiful romances I have ever had the pleasure of reading. Just as Livvie fights against her own feelings towards her captor, we fight against our own, unable to reconcile what our brain is telling us to think and what our heart is making us feel. The more the story unfolds, the further redemption seems like a valid and credible outcome. But we keep hoping – our brain tells us that we shouldn’t, mustn’t, and yet we do, wholeheartedly. The hero tortures our beloved heroine and we keep hoping. He shows her no mercy and we keep hoping. He suddenly shows a hint of humanity and we want to have his babies. The author manages to manipulate our emotions so skilfully that once we reach the end of this journey, she has us exactly where she wants us – gasping for air, with a brain that is so confused that it does not know what to believe in anymore, but with a heart that has somehow grown twice in size from all the intense emotions that are twirling inside it.
“This isn’t a romance. You’re not a damsel in distress and I’m not the handsome prince come to save you.”
This story addresses the unresolvable question of whether monsters are born or made, and whether cruelty justifies further cruelty. Are certain aspects of a person’s personality entrenched in them from birth or are they learnt? We are given a hero that is in equal parts monster and victim. We learn his story and our heart breaks for him, but we struggle to justify his actions towards the heroine in light of his horrific past. And yet we want to do so, desperately. You will walk out from these books shaken to the core – this is a story that you’ll become incredibly protective of and so very grateful to have read it. Its pace will tear at your heart, its themes will leave you distraught, shell-shocked, slightly traumatised, but its greatness will leave you speechless for days. Epic does not even begin to describe the story of Livvie and Caleb.
“During the course of our time together, I’d fallen in love with my captor. I’d fallen in love with his smell and his taste; his smile, kindness, and yes, even his cruelty because I knew it was a part of him.”