The award winning novel by Sandy McCutcheon was winner of the prestigious Christina Stead Award for Literature - Black Widow.
Rather than write about it myself, here are the first of the reviews. A link to more information on the book follows the review.
Black Widow is one of the most moving and thought provoking books of the year, a psychological thriller that humanises a tragedy and examines the possible result of succumbing to the “eye-for-an-eye” urge that would pass through all victims. Beautifully paced and sensitively presented this is an outstanding novel.
Australian Crime Fiction Database at www.crimedownunder.com.
The Bottom Line: The Beslan School siege is the basis from which this beautifully told story of revenge comes. One of the books of the year.
"We have not survived Beslan. We are no longer the people we were before September the first. We are different people now. Deep in all of us, like deeply buried shrapnel, lies the legacy of those days. Like so many others, it has become part of who we are. We are Beslan."
Sandy McCutcheon has taken a tragic real-life event and expanded it out into a fascinating “what-if” scenario that blurs the line between fact and fiction. The impotent feelings of rage that I should imagine are experienced by every victim of terrorism are given vent in Black Widow a tale that chronicles a carefully planned and executed act of revenge.
This all-consuming need for revenge forms the basis for a deeply moving story that masterfully combines the details of the horrors inside the walls of a Beslan school with a gripping fictional response and the disturbing emotional fallout that followed. The terrifying and dramatic takeover of the Beslan Number One School by a group of Chechen terrorists in September 2004 saw over 1300 men, women and children taken hostage. Over the next 3 days were held in complete terror, some were executed, they were kept in the most trying of conditions on the gymnasium floor without water and were subjected to traumatic scenes that would stay with them for the rest of their lives. When the siege was finally ended by Russian soldiers, the lives of 1300 people had been changed forever.
This fictional account is about six teachers who survived the horrors of the school massacre in Beslan and have put together a gripping memorial to honour the dead on the anniversary of the tragic event. Over three days they plan to remember the events that have scarred their lives, only this time, they’re the ones who are going to be in control, they’re the ones who would be heard, and they’re the ones who will decide whether their captives will live or die.
As part of their memorial, the six women have taken hostage 4 young people, 3 men and a woman, each of them a relative of the original terrorists. Over 3 gruelling days they carry out their carefully rehearsed plan, subjecting their hostages to a specific brand of torture in an attempt to purge themselves of 2 years worth of built up rage and hatred against their captors. But what the women aren’t prepared for is the level of defiance and anger demonstrated by their captives.
Filming themselves and their hostages, the teachers seek to recount their horrific experiences, putting their captive audience through the same deprivations and humiliations that they suffered. It’s an extremely moving experience and is designed to allow the teachers to feel as though they have achieved some form of justice, but they find that justice is not an easy state to achieve.
Though the process is supposed to be a healing one, once the memories are recalled, the women find themselves battling to survive all over again. This time they’ve got to escape from themselves. It’s an emotionally harrowing story that I found deeply moving making what had previously been simply a news story from the other side of the world into a much more personal and moving tragedy.
Fatima, Tatyana, Madina, Zoia, Katya and Alina carry out their plan with an efficiency that begins with an outward calm that belies the immense emotion that they feel inside. They are scarred both inside and out and are all itching to get at their hostages, wanting to make them feel their pain. Each of the women are explored, their background, their specialities and, now, the way they have been affected after Beslan.
Black Widow is a methodical recounting of the events that took place on September 1, 2004, only now these events are being paced by the memorial 2 years later. Minute for minute the women pay their respects to the dead and try to explain the pain and suffering to their captives, in fact, they’d like nothing better than to have their captives suffer the way they did.
McCutcheon has poured immense measures of emotion into his story. Katya, the story’s narrator is a noted storyteller and it’s through her lectures and anecdotes told to the captives that we gain a true idea of just how deeply they have been marked. Their need to hurt in retaliation exudes from each of the women, in their words and actions with stinging barbs and promises of a cruel death designed to strike fear in their hostage’s hearts.
In my opinion Black Widow is one of the most moving and thought provoking books of the year, a psychological thriller that humanises a tragedy and examines the possible result of succumbing to the “eye-for-an-eye” urge that would pass through all victims. Beautifully paced and sensitively presented this is an outstanding novel.
Out of interest, "the Black Widows" is the name given to the female terrorists who sit amongst the hostages with explosives strapped to their bodies. Should a rescue attempt be made or the hostages attempt to attack or escape, these explosives may be detonated either by the woman herself or by one of the other terrorists.
More Info or to purchase a signed first edition: click here.
'Would you be capable of killing to avenge the death of a child? … — a story like Beslan can seem so very far away. In Black Widow, McCutcheon brings it right up close in chilling, painful detail. The cleverly constructed plot will propel you through the pain of it. It's a taut psychological drama carefully written with compassion and empathy.' — Lucy Clark, Sunday Telegraph
‘If you like the work of John Le Carré and Martin Cruz Smith, you’ll like the work of Sandy McCutcheon.’— Herald Sun
Each of Katya's moments to camera prompts a flashback on her part to the tragic turn of events in Beslan, which, to McCutcheon's credit, are vividly rendered. With the outcome already known, it's testimony to an artful narrative structure that one feels compelled to read on given such confronting revelations about events that we know to be true.
As the action alternates between the deteriorating situations in the hangar in the forest and the school, time begins to run out, prompting the question, will the teachers of Beslan carry out their terrible revenge? There are no guarantees.In Black Widow, McCutcheon takes political events of the recent past and gives them an immediate human dimension. The fact that his focus is primarily on the women and children caught up in a war about power is understandable and worthy. The book evokes a strong sense of moral outrage and compassion.
- Sue Turnbull, Sydney Morning Herald & The Age (Melbourne)
Six female teachers who survived the Beslan school massacre by Chechen terrorists in 2004 that ended with 331 people dead – half of them children – decide on a terrible act of revenge and justice. They dress in the same black garb as the terrorists and take the sons and a daughter of the terrorists hostage. While a camera rolls they retell the horrors of what happened inside the school, moment by moment, in front of the hostages. ABC presenter McCutcheon narrates a taut psychological drama that challenges notions of revenge and justice – Frank Walker – Sun Herald
The first of September was a special day for schoolchildren in Beslan, traditionally celebrated as the ‘Day of Knowledge’. But after September 2004 the day would be remembered for all the wrong reasons, when a group of terrorists took hostages at Beslan’s School Number One …
Real-life headlines have given Sandy McCutcheon the substance of a plot that wrestles with information and disinformation in a masterful telling of the betrayals of ordinary people caught in political conflict.
Six teachers of children killed in the school siege - Fatima, Tatyana, Madina, Zoia, Katya, and Alina – have come together to plan a unique memorial for the dead hostages. In a gripping role-reversal, they have become the hostage-takers, and a group of the terrorists are at their mercy. But, as they come face to face with their arch enemies, each ‘black widow’ is forced to confront her own demons. What is justice? What price revenge? What price truth? Black Widow ratchets up the unbearable tension for an explosive showdown.
A taut and compelling psychological thriller, Black Widow is an astonishing achievement.
The publisher's website: Scribe Publications
More Info or to purchase a signed first edition: click here.
As a side note, Sandy's subsequent novel ( The Cobbler's Apprentice features (among other places) the wonderful city of Fez.
Tags: Morocco Chechen Beslan Russian