THE ROPE is Nevada Barr’s 17th novel featuring nomadic National Parks Service ranger Anna Pigeon, though in a timeline sense it is the first of Anna’s stories. Without any gimmickry or awkward flashback-filled plot devices Barr simply opens this prequel to her popular series in 1995 when Anna has taken a summer job at a national park near Lake Powell, Arizona. She has left her job as a stage manager but still wears the black clothes her former life demanded and, struggling to come to terms with the recent death of her husband, Anna has been distant with her colleagues and new neighbours. So no one is particularly surprised that she and all her belongings disappear one day; all assuming she has returned to New York or moved on to some place that suits her more. In reality, while out hiking on her day off, Anna gets lost then stumbles across a crime in progress which turns out to have very sinister consequences for her She wakes up groggy and naked and realises she is trapped in a dry well from which there appears to be no escape.
THE ROPE has many of the qualities that I have come to expect from this series including the spectacular setting which is, once again, so deftly described that I feel I too have climbed the canyons and cruised the lake and learned a little more about this poor old planet of ours and the damage we seem determined to do to even the prettiest bits of it. Characters, especially the women, are another strong feature of Barr’s books and this one showcases three very different women. Anna is basically the same person as we see in later books: determined, independent and prone to not doing as she ought though, naturally, not quite as fully formed as she becomes. She remains one of the few fictional characters I’ve ever thought I would like to meet if such things were possible. Her boss for the summer is Jenny Gorman whose job involves collecting the alarmingly large amount of poo the park’s summer visitors deposit where they shouldn’t and trying to educate those same campers on proper poo-managing etiquette (this was an aspect of managing a national park I had never considered but now can’t stop thinking about). Jenny is an intense character whose own dark history is revealed as the story progresses as is her developing love for Anna (she acknowledges that this will be an unrequited love as Anna is not gay though she fleetingly dreams of things being different). The third woman to feature heavily in the book is Bethy, wife of one of the Park Services’ office employees Regis Candor, who, like Anna, undergoes something of a transformation throughout the book. Her husband and the other male characters are less successfully drawn, being somewhat two-dimensional and using awkwardly inserted language that doesn’t feel right for the situation (or maybe it’s just me who has never heard an adult use the word ta-ta’s in a non-ironic sense).
On a less positive note I did find THE ROPE slow, indeed almost glacial for the first half though it picked up a little. This is, I think, due to the book being almost ‘literary’ in the way it focuses on the inner lives and thoughts of Anna, Jenny and Regis & Bethy rather than being driven by complex plotting (honestly the plot is straight-forward and, I thought, fairly predictable). Even though I like Anna I was a little bored by her time in the dry well which lasted a very long time and had almost no suspense at all as it was a given she would escape so she could go on an star in the rest of the series. The other factor that spoiled the book a little for me was that it had one too many near-death escapes for our heroine. On my informal ‘believability scale’ one such escape from almost certain death is required, two is borderline acceptable and three, especially where the situations are very similar, pushes the story into pure fantasy territory. Perhaps this is only because I was listening to it, but by the end, when Anna portentously heads off for what is a blindingly obvious (to everyone but Anna) trap I started thinking of the story as a children’s pantomime where the audience is meant to yell “look out, he’s behind you” at appropriate points. In fact I’m not quite sure that I didn’t actually mumble this under my breath while on public transport.
I did like the book and enjoyed meeting a younger, slightly more vulnerable Anna than I have come to know from later stories but THE ROPE won’t make it to my favourites of the series. If you are an existing fan I’m sure there’s lots here for you but I wouldn’t recommend it as the first place to start for those new to the series and its heroine. I can however recommend the book in audio format, this time ably narrated by Joyce Bean who seems to have permanently (and very competently) taken over narrating the series from Barbara Rosenblat.
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THE ROPE has been reviewed at Kittling: Books (by Cathy who is a true aficionado of the series and was the reader who introduced me to Anna Pigeon.
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My rating 3/5
Narrator Joyce Bean
Publisher Brilliance Audio 
Length 12 hours exactly
Format audio (mp3)
Book Series #17 in the Anna Pigeon series
Source I bought it
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