Written by: Beth Woodward, CC2K Books Editor
I just finished reading a (very!) dark romance titled The Tied Man by Tabitha McGowan, and I’m not quite sure what to make of it. Let me just start here: in my non-CC2K life, I write fiction, and my stories tend to land on the dark side of the spectrum more often than not. Violence and gore are common, and I may be known for starting pieces with a dead body or two. This has earned me more than a few weird looks from friends, family, and even members of my writing group.
I can’t even imagine the kinds of looks Tabitha McGowan gets.
The book description, courtesy of Amazon:
Lilith Bresson, an independent, successful young artist, is forced to travel from her home in Spain to the wild borderlands of northern England, to repay her feckless father’s latest debt by painting a portrait of the enigmatic Lady Blaine Albermarle.
On her first night at Albermarle Hall she meets Finn Strachan, Blaine’s ‘companion’, a cultured and hauntingly beautiful young man who seems to have it all. But Lilith has an artist’s eye, and a gift for seeing what lies beneath the skin. She soon discovers that Blaine is more gaoler than lover, and if the price is right, depravity has no limits.
As the weeks pass, Lilith finds that she too is drawn into the malign web that her patron has spun, yet against the odds she forges a strong friendship with the damaged, dysfunctional Finn. In a dark, modern twist to an age-old story, Lilith Bresson proves that sometimes it’s the princess who needs to become the rescuer.
Please note that this storyline contains depictions of drug abuse, violence and non-consensual sex.
(For the record, the description is really, really not kidding about the last part.)
The book is being categorized by Amazon as a romance, although I’m not sure that’s the appropriate designation. The romance between Lilith and Finn is certainly an integral part of the story, but to me it feels more like psychological thriller or horror. Most of the romance readers I know are looking for something escapist. This is definitely not it. It feels like Nora Ephron and Chuck Palahniuk got together and had a love child. But for me, someone who revels in the darkness, this was not a bad thing. The story is well outside the normal boundaries of romance, but that made it more engaging.
The book is compulsively readable. From the time I started until the time I finished, I couldn’t put the book down. The characterizations, especially of Finn and Lilith, are great. McGowan avoids falling into the trap of making Lilith into an angel devoid of personality whose only role is to save Finn, a common trap romance writers often fall into. Lilith is short-tempered, sometimes thoughtless, and has a troubled past of her own. She’s also just as trapped at Albermarle Hall as its other “employees.”
And Finn…what can I say about Finn? Years of continual abuse have taken him out of the normal “damaged hero” realm to another level altogether. Finn holds himself together (barely) with a steady stream of drugs and alcohol, and even that’s not enough to stop him from frequently lashing out at the few people who care about him. A few times in the story, Blaine—a villainess with a kind of unredeemable evilness that seems straight out of a Grimm Brothers’ fairy tale—tells Lilith that Finn is not damaged, but broken, that there is nothing left of him to save. I couldn’t help but wonder whether she was right. Still, Finn is a sympathetic and likeable character, especially as the affection between him and Lilith grows.
The book seems to run counter to the current trend of BDSM-themed romances, in that all such encounters portrayed in the book are both purposefully violent and definitely non-consensual. I didn’t take this as necessarily a condemnation of the BDSM culture: Finn’s participation is forced, and in BDSM-themed romances, it’s very clear that both parties enjoy the exchanges. But some people might read it that way, so it’s something to be aware of going in.
I did have a few minor issues with the book. McGowan has this tendency to write long stretches of uninterrupted conversation, which sometimes caused me to lose track of who was speaking or even whose point-of-view we were in. (The story alternates between Lilith and Finn’s first-person narration.) This is a pet peeve of mine, writing-wise, and McGowan does it quite a bit.
I also had difficulty suspending my disbelief at times. Although it is explained and portrayed very consistently in the story, I had trouble buying that Blaine was able to psychologically manipulate so many people into doing her bidding, and that she was able to find so many “guests” not only capable of the kind of sadism shown in the story, but who get off on it. Lilith seems to be the first person to object to Finn’s treatment. In a less compelling novel, this might have been a bigger issue. But I was so wrapped up in finding out what happens to Lilith and Finn, so engaged with and attached to their characters, that I barely noticed while I was reading.
The last time I felt so messed up by a book was when I read Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. The Tied Man has a more optimistic ending than that one, but it still felt like the book was…unfinished somehow. It’s not a cliffhanger, and the plot came to a natural conclusion. But there are so many things left unresolved at the end of the book that I couldn’t help but feel like Lilith and Finn’s story wasn’t finished yet. So I was very pleased to learn that McGowan is working on a sequel, titled Unbound. I can’t wait to read it.
This book is not for people who prefer their romances to be all sunshine and lollipops. But if you are the kind of person who likes darkness before the light, or someone who really wants characters to earn their happy endings, this might be one to try.