It would likely take a team of graduate students to determine exactly why this is occurring now, but interest in cults, their members, and leaders – always somewhat in the background – has once again come to the cultural fore. From Netflix’s Wild Wild Country to a slew of books – including Claudia Dey’s Heartbreaker, Victoria Hetherington’s Mooncalves, and Emma Cline’s The Girls – to innumerable podcasts (“Charles Manson’s Hollywood,” a 12-episode arc on You Must Remember This, is a particularly notable piece of long-form journalism on the subject), explorations of cults are filling a particular, and dark, societal need.
With his powerfully compulsive sophomore novel, Nathan Ripley (the not-so-secret thriller-writing alter ego of Toronto author Naben Ruthnum) takes a domestic approach to the cult phenomena, focusing on the most compact cult unit of all: the family. (Lower case.)
Blanche Potter, the protagonist of Your Life Is Mine, has struggled to put her past – and her family – behind her. Her father, Chuck Varner, gained notoriety in the 1990s when he embarked on a killing spree, which he pictured as the first public act of his fledgling cult. Blanche changed her name and crafted a career as a documentary filmmaker, keeping the truths of her childhood a closely guarded secret. However, secrets – as any thriller reader can tell you – have a way of coming out.
As the novel begins, Blanche learns that her estranged mother, Chuck’s most ardent disciple, has been murdered in what used to be the family home. Blanche returns to her hometown where she discovers that something doesn’t seem right about the particulars of the crime, or the police department’s handling of it. A well-known local n’e’er-do-well has been held for the murder. Blanche suspects that the killing was not random but was perpetrated by someone with an interest in Chuck and his erstwhile cult members – and that there may be more murders to follow. The deeper Blanche digs into the crime, using all the techniques and skills she has developed as a documentarian, the more correct her assessment begins to seem.
Your Life Is Mine is a meticulous thriller, a powerful immersion in paranoia and peril. No one can be trusted, and every errant word or gesture can portend either a twist or a confirmation (depending on the reader’s own level of suspicion and distrust). The narrative moves with incremental acceleration, high stakes, and genuine peril. But at its heart, the novel is a character study – a taut, suspenseful exploration not only of Chuck’s madness but also of the darkness in Blanche’s past and in society at large.
Written from Blanche’s point of view, the novel presents a deliberate peeling away of lies and obfuscation, a process of revelation that is at least as enthralling as the slow kindling of the surface narrative. Blanche is a wonderfully complex, deeply conflicted character, at times likable and endearing, at others off-putting and almost cruel. And when the reader discovers what secrets she truly holds, the effect is overwhelming.