Saskia Frost is an eighteen-year-old ballet student who has her whole world thrown into disarray following the death of her father. Discovering that he was in serious debt to the vicious Harper brothers, Joshua and Vincent, she stands to lose her home too unless she can make some kind of deal, some arrangement to clear her father’s debts. She soon finds herself working for the Harpers in their lap dancing club, drawn into a seedy world that she has no place being in.
Lena Cona is a young girl, snatched from the streets of her home town in Albania and forced into marriage against her will. Repeatedly beaten and raped by her husband, Ramiz, Lena will do anything to protect the one good thing to come from this forced union; her daughter Roza. With Ramiz’s life under threat owing to a long standing family feud, they flee Albania with hopes of reaching England and a new life of safety and opportunity. But things do not go as expected. The traffickers who they have paid for passage let them down, and now their lives. and those of their fellow passengers, are in jeopardy. When Roza falls violently ill, Lena is devastated to learn that Ramiz is responsible. With her daughter under threat, Lena takes the decision to run, a choice which has far reaching consequences, but not only for her and her daughter.
Colin Jefferies is a bit of a loner. Working in a graveyard, Colin’s home life is dominated by an alcoholic mother, a woman too drunk and blind to see how twisted her son has become from the years of abuse at her hand. Colin hides his true obsession, and his true self, from the world, knowing that no one will understand it. As first his mother and then Lena uncover his secrets, Colin knows he must do anything to protect them.
‘The Taken’ is a really intriguing novel. Delving deeply into the darker side of humanity, from the world of organized crime in which the Harper brothers operate, to the murky world of human trafficking, exploiting the fears and desperation of refugees, the story touches upon some very difficult subjects. While not particularly graphic, it is very clear the level of abuse that Lena has endured at her husband’s hands. The sense of the lawlessness and hopelessness of the refugee camp at Calais is captured well, along with the sheer evil and selfish nature of Ramiz, a character with no redeeming qualities whatsoever, unless you count his seeming affection for his equally repugnant mother, Drita.
I will be honest. At first I couldn’t see how the stories would tie together. A fifteen year old victim of a kidnapping in Albania, an eighteen year old left destitute following her father’s death and a creepy middle aged man with a very bizarre hobby. While their stories were each in themselves compelling, they seemed so very separate that I had to wonder where the author was taking us. The answer to that was on a wild and, at times, disturbing ride. The separate threads are so very neatly braided by the end that you forget they were ever separate to begin with.
In Lena and Saskia, Kelleher has created two very independent and strong heroines. Both have their reasons to simply give in to their lot and accept a less than perfect fate, but neither does. Both have a believable inner strength and the conviction to do what they need to do to protect themselves and each other. Even Misty, the club’s ‘House Mother’, somewhat jaded and wise to the real nature of the Harper’s business dealings, comes good in the end, protecting Saskia and ensuring Lena’s freedom. In fact, all of the characters are well rounded, even the repulsive Ramiz, whose selfishness knows no bounds, something clearly spelt out on each page.
With such varied settings, from the nightclub, the streets of Albania, to the refugee camp in Calais, Kelleher manages to capture the essence of each very well. The pace is fast, the chapters short and sharp which compels you onward. Each of the girl’s stories draws you in, Lena perhaps more than Saskia, as it’s almost inevitable that Saskia will be an ace on the pole and yet Lena, although clearly independent in her thinking from an early age, is only fifteen when she is abducted, still young enough for the experience to have broken her. You will be willing her to keep her nerve and to catch a break; for Lena to find that one moment of peace for her and little Roza.
If there was one thing which did threaten to throw me out of the book, it was Colin’s story. It became very clear to me early on what his secret was, and that in itself didn’t really put me off, as sickening as the idea was. But there was one scene which made me cringe a little, the idea of what could be sitting very uncomfortably. It was brief and in fairness it was interrupted and, again, not graphic, but off putting nonetheless. That said, a story which can illicit such strong feelings, make my skin crawl, without actually describing anything in detail, is doing its job and doing it well.
‘The Taken’ does a great job of highlighting the plight of young women, not just in Albania specifically, but in a number of countries where their needs and rights are secondary to those of their male relatives. It also draws attention to the suffering and desperation of refugees across Europe. What Lena and Ramiz experienced in the novel is, sadly, all too real, and the loss of human life all too common still. All very difficult subjects to tackle, but done with care – no really gratuitous detail just for the sake of shocking the reader.
A gritty, creepy and sometimes grizzly, 5 stars.
My thanks to NetGalley and publishers Bookouture for the copy of ‘The Taken’ by Casey Kelleher in exchange for my honest review.
‘The Taken’ is released on 5th October and is avalble to order here: