In an early scene from the hit TV show “Lost,” two plane crash survivors bond over a drinking game called I Never. It’s such an iconic game that when the woman says she’s doesn’t know it, the archetypal bad boy jokes that she must not have gone to college. The game starts out innocently enough, but each time they own up to a past misdeed by taking a sip from an airplane bottle, the tension ramps up.
Such is the power of the game. When fueled by lowered inhibitions and arbitrary rules, people will admit things they wouldn’t under normal circumstances. Decatur author Joshilyn Jackson smartly taps into this phenomenon in her ninth novel, “Never Have I Ever.” A version of the game instigates an unpredictable chain of events for Amy Whey, a scuba diving instructor who lives in a quiet, midsize, seaside town.
The initial disruption happens during a local book club meeting in Amy’s “rare Florida basement space.” The cliquey group of moms are all abuzz when the new short-term renter in the neighborhood shows up. Roux is stunning and edgy and unlike the others. Her description conjures an image of sultry actress Megan Fox: straight black hair, full lips and symmetrical features on a tattooed yoga body. “She was the pretty that’s on television.”
Roux effortlessly domineers the book club by plying everyone with booze, declaring that month’s book choice a nonstarter and suggesting they play a grown-up take on Never Have I Ever: Everyone confesses the worst thing they did that day, and whoever’s bad deed is deemed the most awful gets to watch everyone else drink. Round 2 is the worst thing they did in the past week, and so forth until they’ve revealed the most terrible thing they’ve ever done — in their lifetime. As the game progresses, Amy grows terrified and feels targeted. Her emotions are intensified by Roux’s cryptic bet that Amy would win the game.
The interaction sends Amy reeling, thinking about a secret she’d buried so deep that it functions like her liver: “always there; it did its silent, dirty work in the dark of me, necessary, unexcisable, but not a thing I thought about. Not ever.” If made public, such a revelation would threaten her relationships with everyone she loves — loyal husband, teenage stepdaughter, infant son and best friend — and possibly even land her in jail.
Despite how careful Amy has been to keep her secret just that, somehow the animalian Roux knows what happened. And she wants something in return before she’ll quietly move on to the next town and the next target. That is her real game.
To beat Roux and keep the precious life she’s assembled intact, Amy has to figure out who this inscrutable stranger really is and what she’s running from. Where did Roux and her teenage son, who is getting uncomfortably close with Amy’s stepdaughter, come from? Amy’s research forces her to revisit her former life and return to her hometown where she connects with a long-ago best friend and crush who was complicit in the incident Roux threatens to expose. The unresolved feelings that Amy desperately tried to leave in her past are now begging to be dealt with, front and center. Apparently, vicious blackmail can double as a form of intense therapy.
The drinking game that jumpstarts the story proves thematic as the thriller explores the dichotomy between swallowing secrets for self-preservation and the relief that comes with unburdening them. Secret-keeping and amend-making are themes the author knows well, having explored them in novels such as “Gods in Alabama” and “The Almost Sisters.” Jackson’s newest novel is a continuation of her gift for dazzling readers with a puckish storyline while also jabbing at humanity’s absurdities, like how we openly judge others while inwardly justifying our own sins. “People say, I don’t know how she lives with herself, but every single one of them was living with their own worst thing, just fine.”
In researching “Never Have I Ever,” Jackson learned how to scuba dive, a considerable feat that pays off. Her love of the activity emanates from the page, as the scenes in the water are the book’s most entrancing: “The ocean had its own breath, and, suspended in the huge, relentless inhale-exhale of the tide, I matched mine to it.” It was diving that saved Amy from a self-destructive phase of her life; now it’s her job, the reason she met her husband and how she bonds with her stepdaughter. Beneath the water is also where she makes major decisions about whether to stoop to Roux’s diabolical level or stay true to the reformation her life has taken.
The harder Amy fights back against Roux, the more dangerous the blackmailer becomes for others in the shaken-to-its-core neighborhood. Marriages are jeopardized left and right, and when her best friend is used as a pawn, Amy realizes Roux will stop at nothing to get what she wants.
As each new development sends things further off the rails, readers must keep re-theorizing their guesses about what’s truly going on. Despite the sheer ruthlessness Roux demonstrates, though, readers will still be shocked when the truth about why she’s been on the run is finally revealed. For Amy, that’s when the consequences cease to matter and when pure instinct takes over.
‘Never Have I Ever’
by Joshilyn Jackson
352 pages, $26.99
Joshilyn Jackson. Reads and signs “Never Have I Ever. 7 p.m. Aug. 6. Eagle Eye Book Shop, 2076 N. Decatur Road, Decatur. 404-486-0307, eagleeyebooks.com.
Also: 6:30 p.m. Aug 7. FoxTale Book Shoppe, 105 E. Main St., Woodstock. 770-516-9989, www.foxtalebookshoppe.com
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.