Book Review

The Captive by Deborah O’Connor

Hannah knows the cage intimately. Small, the size of a shopping centre parking space. A bed, a basin, a table and chair. A hatch and metal drawer through which to exchange food and other items.

Then there’s him. Always there on the edges of her vision, no matter how hard she tries to block him out.

Every day, the same thoughts run through Hannah’s mind:

What if he speaks to me?

What if he hurts me?

What if he gets out?


I love a speculative thriller and was intrigued by the premise of The Captive as soon as I heard about it.  It’s set in a world that is both familiar and yet startlingly different as Deborah O’Connor explores what might happen if the idea of restorative justice were taken to the extreme.  How would you feel if the person who robbed you was to serve their sentence in a specially constructed cell in your own home?  How would you feel having to look at them every day, to be responsible for providing their food etc.  for the duration of that term?  What if the crime wasn’t robbery, but kidnapping, or assault?  Such is the premise of The Captive and, as with all the best speculative fiction, I think it’s a fantastically thought-provoking idea. 

In the author’s vision, crime rates are at an all-time low.  Not that there’s less crime, but there are fewer crimes reported given the result of a successful prosecution.  Some have even turned to vigilantism rather than taking their case to the authorities, although it seems that most just let things go.  When Hannah’s husband is murdered, it understandably turns her world upside down.  And she is angry.  Even knowing that she may have to host her husband’s killer in her own home, she wants Jem Dahlin to pay for his crime.  The reality of the situation only hits home when he is moved into his cell, however, which is placed in the kitchen where Hannah bakes and decorates the cakes through which she makes a living.  It’s incredibly stressful for her, and she can’t bear to be near him. 

It’s difficult to say too much about the plot without giving anything away, but Jem claims that he is innocent despite the overwhelming evidence presented at his trial.  Hannah doesn’t want to believe him, and yet he begins to get under her skin, and she finds that there are elements to her husband’s death that don’t quite stack up.  As she begins to investigate, she becomes less convinced of Jem’s guilt…  Hannah is a fantastic character, and the reader is on her side from the very beginning.  To lose the person you love would be awful enough, but to then have to face their killer every single day is a horrifying concept.  I can’t imagine what it would be like to be in such a scenario, and while there are procedures in place to make sure that nothing untoward happens to the perpetrator, the temptation to take revenge must be strong.  I think Hannah coped with the situation better than I would have done. 

While the novel is told mostly from Hannah’s perspective, the reader does also get Jem’s point of view, and it quickly becomes apparent that he is up to something – beyond pleading his innocence – but what isn’t entirely clear.  This adds a wonderful edge to the narrative, and the reader wonders if he’s telling the truth or just telling Hannah what she wants to hear.  It’s a brilliant, fast-paced tale as Hannah begins to get answers to her questions, and as Jem’s motives become clearer and I raced through it, wanting to know what the outcome would be.

The Captive is a brilliantly imagined novel and one that is wholly original.  Highly recommended for those that enjoy thrillers, and particularly those that posit an interesting “what if” scenario. 

The Captive is published by Zaffre and is available now in hardback, digital, and audio formats.

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