A Gorgeous Portrayal of Bullying, Trauma, and What Makes Us Human

Sixteen-year-old Sayers Wayte has everything—until he’s kidnapped by a man who tells him the privileged life he’s been living is based on a lie.

Trapped in a windowless room, without knowing why he’s been taken or how long the man plans to keep him shut away, Sayers faces a terrifying new reality. To survive, he must forget the world he once knew, and play the part his abductor has created for him.

But as time passes, the line between fact and fiction starts to blur, and Sayers begins to wonder if he can escape . . . before he loses himself. 

Goodreads Synopsis

Overall Rating

4/5

Quick Take

Dark Room Etiquette is one of those rare novels that you go in to not knowing what to expect and end up coming out completely changed. It is an exploration of bullying, trauma, class, and family that is beautiful and haunting. Despite the large size of this novel, I read it in two days because of how much I bonded with the story. Robin Roe is one of my new favorite authors, and I look forward to seeing where she goes next with her writing.

Tell Me More

Dark Room Etiquette follows Sayers Wayte, an affluent sixteen-year-old boy who seemingly has it all. He is popular, and he has a lot of friends and family. Unfortunately, he and his friends exhibit bullying behaviors towards another boy at this school named Evan. In the beginning of the novel, Sayers is highly unlikable, and it was hard to connect with him. But the beauty of this novel is that Robin Roe made a character who on the outside is the stereotypical “popular kid” who many of us detested in high school and forced us to dive deep into his character and see him from another perspective.

“It’s unnerving, the sheer imagination people have when it comes to inventing new ways to hurt each other.”

Dark Room Etiquette by Robin Roe

Soon into the novel, Sayers is kidnapped by a man who holds him hostage and claims that Sayers is his missing son, Daniel. He brainwashes Sayers with outrageous stories, and we slowly watch as Sayers develops Stockholm Syndrome and loses himself as he further bonds with his kidnapper. Further into the novel, Sayers’ kidnapper brings him a young woman, Penny, to keep him company, and the two create a unique bond as they become isolated with each other.

“A smile from the wrong person is terrifying.”

Dark Room Etiquette by Robin Roe

The descriptions of the abuse that the kidnapper puts Sayers and Penny through are difficult to digest, and I found myself have to stop at certain points to take a break. It was so hard seeing how Sayers’ character diminished over time, and I felt myself wanting to save him from his situation many times. Eventually, when Penny and Sayers are saved from the kidnapping situation, Penny can’t have anything to do with Sayers because she exhibits a severe trauma response whenever she sees him. Penny ends up having to go away to a residential program to receive treatment for her trauma, and Sayers finds himself feeling very alone.

“Names are important. You win favor by remembering. You diminish someone by forgetting.”

Dark Room Etiquette by Robin Roe

The beauty of Dark Room Etiquette, compared to other novels and movies that feature kidnapping, is that the majority of the novel focuses on what happens AFTER Sayers is rescued. We see how his brainwashing affects his relationship with his family, while also discovering how difficult it is for Sayers to try and go back to a “normal” life. I particularly liked how Sayers ends up becoming friends with Evan, the kid who he used to bully, and how their friendship becomes cathartic for him. While the rest of the novel does focus on Sayers’ trauma and how it now impacts his life following the kidnapping, we learn more about Evan and the bullying he suffered at the hands of some of Sayers’ friends. While before the kidnapping Sayers seemed to be oblivious to the struggles of his loved ones and his classmates, he becomes increasingly aware of those around him and what they are going through.

“The bad things are going to change you no matter what, and they can make you angry and bitter – or they can make you better.”

Dark Room Etiquette by Robin Roe

One aspect of this novel that I found interesting was that it heavily featured thoughts on God and faith. Penny believes in God and introduces the idea of God to Sayers while they are isolated, and it seems to be a saving factor for the both of them. Somehow the novel does this without preaching to the reader. I appreciated being able to consider God and see how He became something positive for Penny and Sayers to focus on in the depths of their despair without having religion or faith thrust upon me.

“Logically, I’ve known I wasn’t still locked in a house or a cellar. I mean, obviously I knew that. But I think your mind can stay trapped even when your body is free.”

Dark Room Etiquette by Robin Roe

The only reason I gave Dark Room Etiquette four out of five stars, instead of the solid five stars, is that I was disappointed with how the character of Penny was seemingly neglected following the kidnapping. We aren’t really given an explanation as to why she has such an aversion to seeing Sayers following the kidnapping, and by the time she gets back from residential treatment, the novel ends. While I know that this novel is from Sayers’ perspective, and not Penny’s, it would have helped the reader to learn more about trauma and why Penny acted the way that she did – as well as how deeply the kidnapping impacted her. There were also so many characters with so many storylines that some of them were just barely touched on, and I would have liked to see more depth.

“The thing is, I don’t really care what people believe – I just care what they do.”

Dark Room Etiquette by Robin Roe

Overall, Dark Room Etiquette is one of the best books I have read this year. It is an important novel about trauma and abuse, as well as the difficulties we experience in high school that can impact us for life, and it absolutely blew me away. If you are looking for a novel that will stick with you for a long time, then look no further than this novel. It has quickly made Robin Roe become one of my new favorite authors.

“No matter what’s happened to us, we still have the capacity for so much joy – because there is always a way out of a dark room.”

Dark Room Etiquette by Robin Roe

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