Review Detail

Young Adult Fiction 2003
The Cult Life
Overall rating 
 
3.0
Plot 
 
3.0
Characters 
 
3.0
Writing Style 
 
3.0
Told entirely from the first-person perspective of Minnow, beginning from the point she is arrested and placed in a juvenile detention facility. At first, her unreliable narration leads readers to think she has been placed in this facility because it’s suspected she somehow caused death and destruction at the isolated cult compound where she’d been living since the age of 5. But as it turns out, her detention is a far more complicated matter combining severe violence against a stranger and a possible murder coverup. The truth of her backstory is revealed in non-linear flashbacks throughout her stay.

What I Liked:

-The writing is unusually vivid and compelling. So much so, I didn’t really mind the slowness of the first 70 pages. It’s always encouraging to see this level of prose skill available in YA. The emotional conveyance is raw, and the violence depicted is both stunning and visceral.

-In this reader’s opinion, the author did a decent job of making the conflict crux of this story about the psychological aspects of cultism rather than any specific faith or religion. While Kevinians (named narcissistically after their “prophet”) bear more than a passing resemblance to the perverted LDS offshoot led by polygamist/pedophile Warren Jeffs, their belief system doesn’t seem to be based around anything in particular outside of conspiracy, paranoia, and pseudo-religiosity.

"I guess people can't be content without answers, even if they're wrong. We'd rather have a lie than a question we can never know the answer to."

-Not much actively happens during the present-day portions of the book, outside of institutional nuance and visits from the man investigating the deaths at the former cult compound. So, the driving motivation to read on relies largely on the reader’s desire to piece together the mystery of Minnow’s origins—culminating and even extending beyond the point where she experienced the punitive amputation of both of her hands.

What Didn’t Work For Me:

-One of the biggest things I had trouble with was believability. The Prophet was incredibly one-note in characterization. By the end, I still hadn’t seen any evidence he had enough charisma to convince over 100 blue-collar folks to just up and leave their lives to live in huts in the woods. In all of Minnow's memories of him, he has a creep factor of 10 and a charm factor of 1. And only so much of that can be blamed on Minnow being an unreliable narrator. The implication seems to be that because these people were poor and poorly educated, they were particularly vulnerable. (But if those are the ideal conditions for cult formation, someone needs to explain to everyone how Scientology became such a prominent force. >.>)

-Another jarring implausibility came in the form of the illiterate Minnow’s verbose, sometimes borderline flowery inner dialogue. Which also encompasses her knowing things she would have had no access to. In particular, her possessing the insight and justification for trying to rescue her unwilling younger sister from the cult’s grasp.

"What?" he demanded. "But she doesn't want to."
"It doesn't matter--she's brainwashed."

See... based on her background and the material available to her, Minnow shouldn't even know the word “brainwashed,” let alone understand the meaning of it. Maybe if Jude had taught her to read and she spent secret time getting these kinds of ideas into her head (since radio and TV influences are out of the question), I could buy this massive revelation. But he didn’t and she didn’t. As it was, this convenient unlikelihood pulled me completely out of the story.

-Unfortunately, I never quite connected with Minnow. In part because her characterization never feels fully realized. She is fairly tough, despite the subservient females-are-lesser-beings upbringing. And she shows some heroinism at one single point when she protects a painfully naive fellow inmate from sexual exploitation. But aside from this, we don’t really get to know her—her likes, dislikes, hopes, dreams, fears, etc. Which left a pretty bland taste in this reader’s literary mouth. (I suspect a 3rd person telling would have helped with a lot of this, arousing fewer deep POV expectations than 1st person.)

-The ending was anticlimactic and lacking in closure on many fronts. If you have a burning desire to know the fate of your MC… be forewarned. You won’t find that here.
----------------------

On the whole, we see a few widely-spaced bouts of titillation and shock value, but ultimately... not much substance. If one wants a more accurate and gripping picture of the progression into cult life, I strongly suggest reading: Educated by Tara Westover.
Because the truth is stranger than fiction, and often just as shocking.
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