If I hadn’t gotten Stolen as part of an audiobook bundle, I probably would have passed it by. While I’m not averse to Young Adult novels, I usually end up pairing them with other genres like Fantasy or Science Fiction, rather than Contemporary. If I want to read about real life, my first instinct would be to reach for Non-Fiction. Nonetheless, the premise did intrigue me somewhat, and if I already had a copy there seemed no point avoiding it.
Stolen is narrated by Gemma, a 16-year-old girl who is kidnapped while en route with her parents to Vietnam. When she steps away to get a coffee, an older man buys coffee for her, drugging it to make sure she doesn’t try and struggle. He takes her to the Australian outback, to a desolate outpost of his own making that she can only survive in with his aid.
I wanted to like Stolen because the blurb made it sound like a bid for survival against incredible odds. It is most certainly not that. I read this in what was a barely contained simmer of anger and frustration. There were a few reasons for this, and they can be embodied in the two main characters: the victim, Gemma, and the kidnapper, Ty.
So, first of all, Gemma. There were a couple things that bugged me about her. First was the fact that she didn’t seem to have a whole lot of personality. I appreciate that when confined to an isolated outpost in the Australian bush, there’s only a certain amount that you can do to signpost character building, but even the flashbacks she had about before she was kidnapped were more or less bare of personality. So it transpires that the kidnapper was first drawn to Gemma when she was a child, and her make-believe involved flower fairies, and the fact that she engaged in imaginative play like every other child in existence somehow made her special. When she got into her teenage years, she started resenting her parents for controlling her life! So special! So utterly normal for someone going through massive hormonal changes! The only other thing that comes up is her getting wasted in the park with her friends, which is also, say it with me, entirely mundane and not at all special for someone of her age group. At the end of the book, I knew practically nothing about her as a person beyond the stereotype of a middle class teenager. There are no hobbies that I can list, I know nothing about her friends despite her name-checking them multiple times during the narrative, there are no personality traits that I can name now that it’s all over. So there’s not much incentive for me to want her to get home. Additionally, and this is probably a personal issue, she doesn’t seem to make much of the opportunities that she gets to escape. My husband finds it endlessly amusing that my reaction to most conflict in films can boil down to “Find the person responsible for the problem, and start breaking bones until the problem can be considered solved.” Violent and a bit reductionist I accept, but it can be vaguely amusing. Not here. Here, that tendency just made the whole captivity bit endlessly frustrating. For example, there’s a part where Ty gets a load of scratches on his hands and he pleads with her to help him clean up the wounds, otherwise his hands will be useless. When she first asked what he would do for her in return, I could have cheered. She asks to be taken back home, and he refuses. Fair enough, more or less what I expected. But then she just kind of drops the matter, and asks him some useless fucking question about how he built the hovel that he expects her to treat like a fucking palace. And my mind went wild, asking questions about why she didn’t double down and keep asking to be taken back. Hell, a large part of me was screaming at her to find some lye, and see how long he really wanted to be stuck with her after that. She kept hesitating, like she can somehow reason with Ty.
Which brings me to my second major problem with the book. I could have appreciated Ty as a villain, if the narrative didn’t want so much for the reader to want to fix him. He’s kidnapped a girl almost a decade younger than him who he’s been stalking since she was 10, sure, but look at how pretty and muscular he is. He’s a hypocrite who wants freedom for himself but sees no issue with abducting anyone or anything that he could benefit from, but you can’t be mad because he had a traumatic childhood. He’ll prevent anything that Gemma wants unless it directly coincides with what he wants, but he hasn’t raped her so of course it doesn’t count as actual abuse. Sure, Stockholm Syndrome is brought up in the final chapter, but that doesn’t mean I have to like how the narrative goes. There’s a line towards the end where Gemma says “It’s hard to hate someone once you understand them”, and I hate it with a passion. Just because an abuser does something nice doesn’t make up for all the awful things that they do. It reminded me of a scene in An Evil Cradling by Brian Keenan, which is a hell of a harrowing read, but a really valuable experience in my opinion. There’s a scene where the kidnappers, after months of horrific mistreatment, throw a birthday party for one of the hostages. It shows a more vulnerable side to the jailers, but all it does is make them repulsive instead. And that is what Ty’s “tragic” backstory does for me: instead of making him more sympathetic, he only becomes more disgusting and pathetic. And the fact that anyone is taking anything romantic out of Stolen just makes me sick to my stomach.
About the only thing I did like was the description of the Australian outback. It’s vivid and colourful and sensual, and I could only wish that such descriptions were contained in a less objectionable story.
Some pretty descriptions of the outback are about the only good thing that can be taken from Stolen. Otherwise it’s an anger-inducing story about a girl utterly lacking in personality, who slowly becomes convinced that as her kidnapper hasn’t tried raping or killing her, that means it’s twue wuv. Christ, it’s utterly nauseating. Newsflash, abuse isn’t sexy and Stockholm Syndrome isn’t romantic. Don’t touch with a barge pole. 1/5
Next review: Abandon by Meg Cabot