Opening a novel with Christmas dinner might make readers think they’re in for something cozy.
Not in Lisa Unger’s hands.
Unger, an internationally bestselling thriller author and resident of Pinellas County, knows just how to put us on the knife’s edge from the start. In the first paragraph of her 20th novel, “Secluded Cabin Sleeps Six,” the turkey’s “carcass is splayed in the middle of the table. Carved, flesh torn away, eaten, ribs exposed.” Red stains mark the empty wineglasses; maroon lipstick smears a napkin.
Hannah, the main character, has just shared a holiday dinner at her parents’ Florida home that might have started out looking like a Hallmark movie, but it’s quickly crumbled into sniping by her mom, withdrawal by her dad and acting out by her bigger-than-life older brother, Mako, as his wife, Liza, does yoga breathing. Hannah loves them all, but they’re a lot, and only the soothing presence of her husband, Bruce, keeps her calm.
Before Hannah and Bruce can head for the guest room where baby daughter Gigi is sleeping, there’s an uncanny surprise. Hannah’s father finds a stack of wrapped boxes behind the Christmas tree, one for each of them, that turn out to be DNA tests. Everyone swears the gifts are not from them, and the evening ends on a dark note of suspicion.
But there’s something to look forward to: Mako has invited his sister and brother-in-law to join him and Liza for a posh vacation at a cabin in the north Georgia mountains in June. Fast-forward six months, and the “wellness retreat” is coming up, with the promise of on-site yoga, massages, hiking and a private chef.
Just as important is Mako’s promise that, although it’s 20 miles from the nearest town, the cabin is guaranteed to have Wi-Fi. Mako has made a fortune running a company that develops video games, and a new one is about to drop. Bruce, as Mako says, is a “whisperer ... he lives inside the code,” with extraordinary skills. He works for Mako part time but preserves his freelance business, too, which sometimes involves government contracts and the like that he can’t talk about, even to Hannah.
So they need to be able to do business online, and Hannah needs to be able to check in with Bruce’s mother, who’s babysitting Gigi. Hannah worries, too, about a tropical storm out in the Atlantic that could bend inland toward the Georgia mountains, but what are the odds? Mako promises the weekend will all be “epic,” and he’s hard to resist.
Joining the two couples at the cabin is Hannah’s longtime best friend (and Mako’s ex-girlfriend), Cricket. Where Hannah is cautious, Cricket is always down for a party. The only stranger in the group is Cricket’s latest beau, Joshua.
The cabin turns out to be breathtaking, three stories of glass and wood with spacious rooms and spectacular views of the remote landscape. Hannah has already checked it out online and, although she didn’t find it on the usual Airbnb-type sites, she read lots of glowing reviews on its own website.
She also found one on a seemingly abandoned, older website that described a smaller cabin on the grounds as so “creepy” the guests left early. And then there are those stories about a crime long ago on the place — is it really haunted, or is that just savvy marketing?
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But Hannah and Bruce really need a break. He has been working so much, and being so secretive about it, that she’s fretting — despite his assurances — that something is amiss in their relationship.
They’re not the only ones with secrets. Unger focuses most of the narrative on Hannah, but occasional chapters give the points of view of other characters, and in one we learn that Liza is keeping secrets from Mako. From Cricket, we learn things about Mako that his sister doesn’t know. In another chapter, we meet Braecken, the owner and host of the cabin, who might be a little too interested in his guests. And there are others.
As the vacationers settle in, Hannah tries not to dwell on the skull-shaped chandelier in the great room and the seemingly excessive number of knives in the kitchen.
But before they even finish the first night’s lavish, chef-prepared dinner, one of the group disappears. And from then on, the book barrels into high gear.
Unger is a virtuoso of the psychological thriller, and in several of her recent books she has skillfully meshed the secrets that can fester inside relationships with the dependency we’ve developed on technology, whether it’s the internet or tests that claim to tell us who we really are. In “Secluded Cabin Sleeps Six” that combination produces the worst vacation ever, but an exhilarating read.
Secluded Cabin Sleeps Six
By Lisa Unger
Park Row Books, 400 pages, $27.99