When a young adolescent, Lily, goes missing one summer evening everyone is shaken by the disturbance to mundane normality. Rachel, who is Lily’s teacher and the mother to Lily’s best friend Mia, finds herself at the centre of this disappearance due to sheer proximity. Rachel's strong maternalism sends her into a deep fixation on Lily’s disappearance but it isn’t until she is consoling Lily’s mother does she see something in Lily’s room that sparks a memory—a memory that makes Rachel think she might know who took Lily.
Heatstroke is one of the most twisted & shocking books I have read in a long time. I went into reading this novel with minimal expectations. I wasn’t sure how I was going to like it; I barely even knew what it was about. But once I read through the surface layer of the story and delved deeper into the scandal Barkworth gives us, I was absolutely itching to reach the end.
There were a lot of technical elements that stood out to me in this novel; foreshadowing, the glaringly obvious motif of heat, and the way repetition was used regularly to elicit desperation. But what stood out to me was the orientation of Barkworth’s limited omniscient narrator. Nothing in a novel happens accidentally, but rather it is all extremely intentional and one of my favourite parts of reading, especially when reading cryptic stories, is trying to decipher why an author chose to form it this way. From the very start I was suspicious and curious about why we have Rachel as our most central figure. She seemed just that little bit too disconnected from the actual disappearance to be overwhelmingly impacted by the events, at least no more than any other teacher or concerned parent—that is until she isn’t as disconnected as we initially thought. This limited perspective casts doubt in the reader’s mind, can we trust what we have read? Is what we know true and relevant to the story that is unfolding in this fictional world? I know some people might find this guessing game somewhat tedious but I LOVED the conspiratorial mindset Heatstroke brought out of me.
However, Heatstroke did not exist in my realm of interest without some concerns. It is clear that there is a sinister element to the plot, as its revealed quite early that Lily has not just disappeared but been taken, or rather lured, by a male in a position of power who has manipulated her under the guise of love. I was really concerned about the direction Barkworth would take with this content matter. I don’t think child abduction/abuse as a fun thriller trope and should not be used as an intriguing plot device, because in some way that’s enabling. My concern with this context was how Barkworth is going to contribute or elevate the existing narrative we have regarding child abuse, predatory adults, and their abuse of power. If you’ve been a The Book Slut for a long time you’ll know we published a lot of content to do with My Dark Vanessa. Personally, reading this My Dark Vanessa challenged and reestablished my perceptions of survivor-hood and how there is no uniform experience about surviving such a horrific experience. While Heatstroke doesn’t do it in quite the same way, Barkworth gives us a perspective (this is where the weird close third narration really begins to make sense) that is rarely explored. The perspective of those people who must come to terms with knowing and being associated with a predatory person.
The idea of heat, summer, and generally rising temperatures is extremely prevalent in this novel. It is not at all subtle in the slightest. However, I don’t think this oversaturation of a theme is a bad thing. Reiteration and repetition are mundane elements of life. The constant acknowledgement of the heat, and how it impacts Rachel speaks to her normalcy and helps foster a more relatable point of sympathy between our main character and the reader. Anyone who has experienced a blisteringly hot day (and I’m speaking from Penrith which on January 4th 2020, was declared the hottest place ON EARTH with temperatures reaching 50 degrees celsius, that’s 122 Fahrenheit for my American friends), knows that you can’t interact with someone without acknowledging how fucking hot it is. The physical response to heat is a universally experienced feeling (unless you’re Prince Andrew and don’t sweat) and is something most readers can relate to. I think Barkworth’s focus on this motif serves two purposes; it banks on the fact that readers would be able to sympathize with how Rachel was feeling in specific moments but also it clearly illustrates the rising pressure Rachel feels as events and truths of the matter transpire. So while some could argue that this motif was too obvious or too in your face, I think that’s the reality of heat and extreme weather, it is unignorable and this acts as an extended metaphor for ideas of truth what happens when one does, or doesn’t, succumb to it.
Heatstroke was a bit of an unexpected read for me; I was intrigued but had little to no idea about it’s deeper contents and I had heard nothing about it. But after navigating my doubts and trusting that Barkworth would respectfully add to the narrative of sexual manipulation and abuse I was gripped by one of the most twisted and surprising novels. Heatstroke had me on the edge of my seat and I can truthfully say I’ve never read anything like it. Barkworth gives us an atmospheric, dark, visceral and thought provoking novel that is contributing to the conversations of healing and grief when we talk about surviving predators.
By Hazel Barkworth.
312 pages. 2020.