The Dark Within Them

Review by Kate Horsley

Isabelle Kenyon’s debut novel, The Dark Within Them, is a beautifully written and intricately plotted literary mystery. Set in Lehi, a safe Mormon town in Utah County, where Amber settles with her new husband, Chad, and two children, Gilly and Ivan, Kenyon’s book explores themes of faith, motherhood and marriage with nuance. At the same time, the plot propels the reader forward with the claustrophobic tension of recent grip-lit classics like The Girl on the Train.  

Following on the death of her husband, Amber works the faith-healing circuit, where she has found fame and following, making a name for herself as an independent force to be reckoned with. But, as we come to discover, Amber’s life won’t allow for complete independence: “There were only certain circles of the church open to single mothers. And most of them sought to patch the vacancy in your life for you. It was difficult to gain influence or an audience for her work as a visionary, as an unattached female. Folks around these parts attached derogatory terms to her. There was a sense of distrust, like the fear of witches concocting spells against the town.” 

Chad, a practising Mormon, apparent good guy, and Amber super-fan, fantasizes about Amber being his trophy wife. Amber, meanwhile, dreams that Chad will provide her children with a secure home and father figure and Amber herself with conventional credibility: “A husband seemed to ground that fear, presented her as a caregiver, a sandwich-maker, the giver of cupcakes.” But the course of not-especially-true love never did run smooth. 

One of my favourite things about The Dark Within Them is the moral ambiguity of the two main characters. Charismatic Amber flirts and charms her way through the book’s first chapters like a classic femme fatale, a question mark hovering tantalisingly over the circumstances of her abusive husband’s death. Compared to Amber, love interest Chad seems clumsy and insecure, often out of his depth: “He felt a little sick. Like an uncool dad about to surf his way through an Ariana Grande concert.”  

Hypnotic Amber, meanwhile, hides a bruised strength under her brittle exterior: “Amber’s smile stretched and broke like cracked PVA glue.” All the while, the sultry landscape lurks around them, described in lush and unsettling detail, which was another of my favourite aspects of this richly layered book: “There were mosquitoes lovingly kissing scarf-less necks, liberal in their affections, and a rustling in the hedges, which Chad suspected might be crickets.” Elsewhere, dubious characters merge with the landscape like chameleons taking on protective colouration: “A ruddy smear of a man. He stood in front of a huge house-much too big for one man living alone—of brown brick, the colour of soil. It blended into the arid farmland behind him.” In the half-light of this noir setting, Chad seems a moth lured towards the bright light of Amber’s spirituality. 

As the plot unfurls, though, their relationship takes a series of break-neck twists and turns, causing the reader to question if Chad is at who he first seemed or something much more dangerous. When Amber’s daughter Gilly dies suddenly and under strange circumstances, Amber confronts a tight knot of secrecy in the Lehi community, who will do anything to protect their own. As she fights to find answers and a way out, she discovers that nothing in Lehi is as it seems. 

Isabelle Kenyon is a Manchester writer and the author of 5 chapbooks including Growing Pains (Indigo Dreams). She has had work and articles published internationally and newspapers such as The Somerville Times and The Bookseller.  

With its morally culpable characters and mysterious setting, Kenyon’s journey through faith and betrayal keeps its readers constantly guessing. We highly recommend this stylish and gripping debut!