Cover Image

Circle Nine by A. Hetzel

Heltzel, Anne. Circle Nine. Somerville, Mass.: Candlewick Press, 2011. Print.

Why are hapless females in YA novels always named Abby? I don’t know, the amnesiac narrator of Circle Nine would reply. That’s just what it says on my necklace.  So begins Anne Heltzel’s debut thriller: a teenaged girl awakens on the pavement outside a burning building with no memories and no name, save the one she wears in gold around her neck.

With her is a mysterious, charismatic youth named Sam, who claims to be her friend.

Sam persuades Abby to retreat from the fire and into the woods, where they hide in the safety of his “cave-palace”: a glittering subterranean paradise full of shimmering fabrics and sumptuous furniture. There, the two of them sip pomegranate wine, discuss fine literature, and forswear all contact with the outside world, which Sam likens to an Aleghierian hell (hence the book’s title).

We suspect this a fantasy, invented by Abby to protect herself from an uglier cave and an uglier Sam, to say nothing of the ugly events occluded by her smoke-kippered memory. The question is: whose fantasy is it? What sixteen-year-old with cheap bling on her neck would retreat into a happy place wrought with literary allusion, Platonic cave metaphors, and Oriental carpets? This is clearly the reverie of the author herself, still in love with her various muses.

Abby’s fantasyland, though out of character, is not necessarily a detriment to the novel itself. Indeed, we could do without the predictable combination of flashbacks and sleuthing by which Abby reconstructs her true identity, and abide instead within her doomed and darkly luminous otherworld. For it is there that Heltzel’s storytelling is at its boldest, her writing most sensuous and wild, and it is here that the novel promises—if only briefly—to be something other than the dreary chestnut about a naïve girl brought low by bad luck and sly men.

Recommended with reservations: 2 out of 4 stars
Reviewer: Sarah Mead-Willis

Sarah is the Rare Book Cataloguer at the University of Alberta's Bruce Peel Special Collections Library. She holds a BA and an MLIS from the University of Alberta and an MA in English Literature from the University of Victoria.