'If you save somebody's life, you are responsible for them forever'. This is quite a burden to take on, and is the Chinese proverb at the centre of this gripping, very readable, action thriller. Hunter Grant, retired army veteran at the age of 38, looking for the peaceful life after a bruising time in Afghanistan, finds himself back in the conflict zone, taking on the responsibility of saving then looking after the life of another.
A single man, he lives in Auckland, and also has a cabin deep in the bush north of the city. While staying at his place in the bush for a few days, he and his dog Scruff stumble upon a young woman, almost dead, exhausted, hypothermic, malnourished, terrified, and clearly abused. This is Dao, the one whose life Hunter saves, and whom he becomes totally responsible for. Skilfully the writer reveals the bare details of Dao's story while Hunter does his best to give her immediate care, warmth and food. She has been held captive by a brutal man called Bram on a remote coastal farm - chained, beaten, abused, threatened, alone, her mother having died, in a constant struggle for survival. The real person in charge however, is a sinister and frightening character called the Boss, who turns up from time to time at the farm wearing a Darth Vader mask, thus unrecognisable, calling the shots.
Even though she has escaped, Dao is still in danger, Hunter in turn now also finding himself the target of the bad guys. The story takes place over 15 days, with Dao and Hunter trying to stay alive, trying to find out Dao's history, where she came from, her real name, and ultimately, uncovering exactly what has been going on at the farm. Everything around Dao is scary and unfamiliar, her having been hidden away for so many years. Even though the reader is familiar with city life, shopping malls, driving, eating out, for Dao this is all very unfamiliar. We see this through Dao’s eyes, giving a slightly sinister undertone to the urban/suburban scenes, threatening and a little unsettling, so contributing perfectly to the evil brewing.
The main focus of the story is on the relationship between Hunter and Dao. It could easily become exploitative, with Hunter having the position of power, especially considering what Dao has come from, what is normal to her. But no, not once is there any hint of impropriety, taking advantage or exploitation. This Hunter is one heck of a guy, taking his position of guardianship very seriously, at all times aware of the peculiar and compromising position he is in. He has some great women in his life - his two sisters Willow and Plum, and his best friend Charlie, who was in Afghanistan with him. These three women help him in his care of Dao. As Dao's confidence, trust and self-worth blossom, the nature of the relationship between Hunter and Dao changes, but it is never sleazy, uncomfortable or weird. Perhaps because the writing is by a woman?
I doubt if the plot would move so fast in a real-life situation - this is one very damaged young woman, still in considerable danger - but it is a great 15 day ride. Plenty of action, great characterisation and very believable characters. This is a thriller, a whodunnit, at times scary and violent, edge of the seat stuff but constantly tempered by the relationships between Hunter and Dao, Charlie and the two sisters. So much packed into 300 pages. A great story, deserves to be widely read and publicised. “