It was supposed to be a short trip – a break in New Zealand before her best friend’s wedding. But when Cassy waved goodbye to her parents, they never dreamed that it would be years before they’d see her again.
Having broken up with her boyfriend, Cassy accepts an invitation to stay in an idyllic farming collective. Overcome by the peace and beauty of the valley and swept up in the charisma of Justin, the community’s leader, Cassy becomes convinced that she has to stay.
As Cassy becomes more and more entrenched in the group’s rituals and beliefs, her frantic parents fight to bring her home – before Justin’s prophesied Last Day can come to pass.
See You in September is the latest novel by Charity Norman which examines the consequences on a family when the eldest daughter gets caught up in a dangerous cult in New Zealand. Cassy is shown to be an intelligent young woman who is struggling to live up to the expectations placed on her by her father who wants her to pursue a career in law. Since Cassy really wants to be a teacher but is terrified of disappointing her father, there is a sense of conflict already evident. However, Cassy has a more immediate problem to worry about when she realises her entire future has been put in in jeopardy by an unexpected pregnancy. Cassy has no real desire to be a mother and when her boyfriend, Hamish, urges her to get an abortion, she realises she never really loved him anyway and informs him they are over.
At this point, we are supposed to believe Cassy is vulnerable enough to fall prey to the recruitment tactics of the cult as she is conflicted about her unborn child and worried about disappointing her parents, however I never bought into it. The author intersects each chapter with details from a novel written by a cult expert who we meet later which outlines the eight steps a cult would undertake to indoctrinate a new member and we are then shown how this is applied to Cassy. For me, Cassy is never broken enough to convince me she was prime for recruitment in the first place even if things are little bleak for her at the moment. Cassy is a survivor and I don’t believe her parents wouldn’t have stood by her regardless of what decisions she had made about her future. If anybody was vulnerable to be recruited, then it was Cassy’s younger sister, Tara, whose life completely disintegrates when Cassy doesn’t come home.
Life in the community of Gethsemane does seem like an idyllic one as everyone seems happy and negativity of any kind is shunned so you can certainly understand how some of their recruits have been sucked into the fantasy. Cassy is made the centre of attention when she first arrives and the crazy religious stuff is kept to a minimum until they feel she is one of them. The community is led by the charismatic Justin Calvin who believes he is Jesus Christ reincarnated and he has a powerful hold over his recruits. Calvin always seems to know what is going on within the community, even though he keeps himself to his own island, and this adds to the divine image he is projecting. Calvin also likes to keep track of major disasters which he uses to prove the end of the world is nigh and his followers have been told when the Last Day comes they will be by his side as he regains his kingdom in Heaven. While Calvin is convincing as the enigmatic leader, his actions are stereotypical of any cult leader throughout history so nothing comes as a surprise.
The best part about See You in September is the effect Cassy’s departure has on her family and I always like how Charity Norman examines an event from different angles, although this book was nowhere near as powerful as The Son-in-Law. While Cassy seems to be blossoming in New Zealand, her family are slowly disintegrating without her as her parents separate under the strain and her younger sister, Tara, seems to lose her focus. Since the story spans five years, the timeline jumps frequently so we don’t get to witness much of the devastation as it happens which is a pity as this is where Norman’s strength lies. It was an interesting book but not one of Norman’s best.