A Woman Escapes Her Kidnapper. Will She Live Happily Ever After?

Welcome to Group Text, a monthly column for readers and book clubs about the novels, memoirs and short-story collections that make you want to talk, ask questions and dwell in another world for a little bit longer.

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A woman and a girl make a mad dash from a windowless cabin in the woods, fleeing a sadistic captor. Unfortunately, the woman’s life is not as she left it, freedom is not how she remembers it — and her worst nightmare has just begun.

I think book clubs need more suspense! And reading Hausmann’s thriller is like watching a smart, scary movie: You’ll want company while you piece together the puzzle, plus a hand to squeeze during creepy parts.

Lena Beck has been missing for 4,825 days.

“That’s over 13 years. Thirteen years during which every ring of the telephone might signal the one message, the only message that would change everything,” Lena’s father, Matthias, tells us in Romy Hausmann’s tantalizingly disturbing debut, DEAR CHILD (Flatiron, 368 pp., $26.99).

But I’m getting ahead of myself. The story begins like this: A woman and a little girl who have been involved in a hit-and-run car accident are taken by ambulance to a hospital two hours from Munich. The girl, Hannah, speaks for her bloodied, unconscious “Mama,” who has been injured. She says she doesn’t know their last name. Her family doesn’t have a telephone. When she followed her mother out of their cabin in the forest, they left her brother behind to take care of “stains on the carpet.” Finally, Hannah whispers to the nun who is taking all this down: “Nobody must find us.”

The only thing more perplexing than this chillingly calm girl — think “Poltergeist” — is the thought of being trapped in the hellhole she calls home. We learn that the windows are covered with insulation panels, the cabinets are locked, the air is stale and recirculated, and the plumbing is primitive. Nevertheless, Hannah is eager to get back there.

Interspersed with these revelations are snippets of memory from her companion, whom we’ll call Lena (like the 23-year-old abducted student, she has a small scar on her forehead). As she regains consciousness, Lena remembers the smell of the air after rain, the swing in her grandparents’ garden and the feeling of “fine white sand between the toes.” Her sense of longing is clear, but we don’t know how or why she was yanked out of the world she yearns for and where she has been in the meantime. What happened to the man who holds the keys to the cabin? What will happen to this woman and her two children, who think it’s normal to have one toy each, prescribed times to use the bathroom and no access to the outside world?

Hausmann unfurls her dark mystery from alternating viewpoints. Hannah, Lena and Matthias share time with another character, who will remain nameless for the purposes of this review. Their perspectives shift quickly, sometimes too quickly. Remember that playground ride where you’d stand in the middle of a metal disk while someone whirled you in circles? Hausmann is that devilish friend, pausing only to add another character to her spinning tray. Like the woman in the hospital bed, you’ll lose your bearings — and maybe that’s the point.

“Dear Child” employs a midbook bait-and-switch reminiscent of “Gone Girl,” so it’s difficult to delve too deeply into the plot without spoiling the fun (and this is a fun story, despite underlying themes of misery and torture). You won’t know whom to trust. You may stumble on awkward language; the book is translated by Jamie Bullock from German and includes a few words — like “twigged” — that don’t quite fit.

But the overall experience is as enthralling as it is thought-provoking. Hausmann creates a dark solar system studded with twinkling stars: parents who won’t give up hope, children trying to make sense of an unfathomable situation, neighbors watching out for one another and an estranged friend who not only shows up but stays. At the core of “Dear Child” is the constant hope that characters will be drawn back to people who mean the most to them, no matter how far apart they’ve been pulled. That glint of optimism is the light guiding readers as they fly through this book.

Discussion Questions

Whose perspective felt the most authentic to you? Without the names before each section, would you be able to distinguish one voice from another?

How did each character handle their trauma differently? And which one(s) did you suspect of nefarious behavior as the story unfolded?

What role did the media play in covering the crimes? What statement do you think Hausmann is making about how intense scrutiny can affect the outcome of an investigation?

Suggested Reading

Room,” by Emma Donoghue. It’s impossible to read “Dear Child” without thinking of Donoghue’s novel about a mother-son pair who survive captivity in an 11-by-11-foot hellhole. (Our reviewer wrote, “The drama is immediate, as is our sense of disorientation over why these characters are in this place.”) But the plots’ paths diverge dramatically as soon as their characters emerge, blinking, in the daylight beyond their doors.

Miracle Creek,” by Angie Kim. Like “Dear Child,” this conversation-starting courtroom drama is rooted in claustrophobia. Pak and Young Yoo, recent immigrants from South Korea, open a hyperbaric oxygen therapy center on their property in Virginia. Their pressurized chamber, the Miracle Submarine, bursts into flames with clients locked inside, leading to an intense debate about who will be held responsible — and why.

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