Abby has no clear memory of her life before Sam, with whom she lives in a cave that usually seems like a "palace." There, he reads Dante's Inferno to her and warns her that the outside world is Circle Nine, the worst part of hell. He assures Abby that she is safe, but she sees momentary flashes of their luxurious lair "strewn with garbage and threadbare blankets and stained sheets." There are other mysteries, too: Abby sketches a girl repeatedly, dreams of her, and gains new memories; eventually she ventures out into Circle Nine to discover her painful past. Readers will race through the first part of this imaginative psychological drama, trying to determine what is real and why Abby's memory is so damaged, though the story's intrigue lessens after the mystery is revealed. Still, debut author Heltzel layers her story with questions about guilt, identity, and survival, leading to Abby's insight that "you can never just have good or bad, one or the other. They're both there, all the time, in Circle Nine or in my head." Despite the story's darkness, the conclusion points to a hopeful path forward for Abby. Ages 14–up. (Sept.)
From the Publisher
An ideal adult crossover book.
With explorations of addiction, homelessness, and abuse, this book touches on some of society’s weightiest issues. This is a title for teens who like their fiction serious and gritty.
—School Library Journal
VOYA - Cynthia Winfield
Abby's world is wholly built around Sam, whose drug dependence makes him sick in the absence of his "medicine" and whose lies entirely shape Abby's beliefs. Her trust and reliance are total, allowing her to experience "reality" as Sam presents it, to the point of seeing an opulent castle and tasting culinary delights while living in a dank, filthy cave surviving on scraps scavenged from Dumpsters. The community beyond their small world is, according to Sam, part of Dante's ninth circle of hell and should be entirely avoided. Confused by her lack of memory, Abby struggles through searing headaches to find the self she has buried so deeply following a traumatic event. Billed as a psychological thriller, Heltzel's carefully-rendered first novel is built upon a character in a dissociative fugue following the traumatic experience of surviving the house fire that killed her family. The extreme nature of Abby's distorted perceptions alerts readers to her psychological instability from the outset, making the diagnosis delivered during psychotherapy unsurprising to savvy readers, although it clarifies lingering questions about how Abby could allow herself to be so totally deluded. Readers who find Abby's early submissiveness too distasteful may abandon their reading and miss the author's intention; for that reason, the book would work well as supplementary reading for psychology, social studies, or literature courses in high schools or junior colleges. This reader was hard pressed to continue past the opening chapters initially but then found it engrossing when reread as a psychological portrait. Reviewer: Cynthia Winfield
Children's Literature - Pamela Barr Lichty
Who is Abby? How did she come to live in a sumptuously decorated cave with the solicitous and gentlemanly Sam? Heltzel presents a gritty tale of guilt that will capture older teens that discover Dante's Inferno in the drugs, abandonment, and grief of the narrative. Often painful to read, the story moves Abby through nearly three months with Sam, whose illness and deterioration finally force her to realize the grim reality of their dwelling and their relationship. As her memory returns, readers will share Abby's recognition and despair as she remembers the mystery girl she has persistently drawn. A hopeful ending moves Abby to Purgartorio and Pardisus and, perhaps, a healing future.
School Library Journal
Gr 10 Up—A teen wakes up next to a flaming building, her lungs burning, her head throbbing, and she can't remember who she is. The boy who rescues her tells her that her name is Abby and his is Sam. He seems surprised that she can't remember that they're friends and he promises he'll take care of her; she goes with him to live in an abandoned mine shaft in the woods because she feels she has no other choice. Thus begins this psychological drama told from Abby's perspective. She exists in a fugue. Sam controls her, keeping her safe from the outside world or, as they call it, Circle Nine. She believes she is happy and in love with him. But when Sam brings another girl into their home, Abby begins to questions his loyalty. As he gets sicker and sicker without what he calls his "medicine," Abby remembers elements of her past and finds that she must leave the cave to help herself and him. She ultimately draws on her inner strength to cope with her tragic life. Though readers may be puzzled by the writing style—italics are used instead of quotes and the prose is constrained—if they forge ahead they will soon be engrossed in the mystery and suspense. With explorations of addiction, homelessness, and abuse, this book touches on some of society's weightiest issues. This is a title for teens who like their fiction serious and gritty.—Mindy Whipple, West Jordan Library, UT
A sad and slow-moving meditation on secrets, lies, identity and fate.
Abby lives in a lavishly decorated secret cave in the woods, doted on by the handsome and mysterious Sam. She's free to sketch all day, losing herself in her artwork, mythology and the classic literature Sam loves to read aloud. She wonders about her life before she met Sam, but the details are too fuzzy to pin down, and everything seems perfect as she basks in the glow of Sam's affection and care. Leaving their snug hideaway to uncover the truth is out of the question, anyway, because Sam fears Abby will be attacked by the evil denizens of the world outside, which he's dubbed Circle Nine, after Dante's most intimidating Circle of Hell. His reasoning doesn't hold up: Abby notes that Sam leaves the cave to get "medicine" from his "doctor," Sid, while Amanda, another Circle Nine resident, turns up to live in the cave, too. Amanda makes Abby question her perceptions of the cave, the food they eat, even Sam's motivations. Astute readers will have sussed out most of Sam's problems and Abby's past well before her memories trickle, then surge back, eliminating the urgency and suspense essential to any psychological thriller's success.
Abby and Sam's tragic story is better suited to tearjerker fans than die-hard thriller readers. (Mystery. 14 & up)