(Jump down to read a review of The Absence of Nectar)
(Jump down to read a review of The House of Gentle Men)
"Prince of Lost Places"
(Reviewed by Judi Clark MAY 28, 2003)
"I'm going to fly now," he announced. He looked down at me, annoyed. "Don't catch me. I don't need you."
"I'm just catching your shadow."
He seemed to accept this. His bare feet pushed off the branch and he plummeted straight down into my arms, his body so heavy that I almost lost my footing.
There is very little that I am going to be able to say about this book except that it demands to be reread when you get to the end; and it's not because you won't get it, but because it is so awesomely unexpected you'll want to know how the author did it. Also, in case others aren't careful about ruining the book by revealing too much, I'd recommend that you stay away from all reviews if you intend to read the book yourself. Maybe even stay away from this one.
Martha Warden has left home, left civilization and has taken her son Duncan with her. Duncan would normally be in his first grade class; instead they are rafting down the Rio Grande River between the border of Mexico and the US on their way to a secret cave. Martha, who narrates the majority of the novel, has left her husband, David, though she still loves him and knows she'll miss him. But, she's afraid he has seriously lost his mind. David has said something -- of which she won't say -- that made it clear that she had to get her son away from his father. But it's more than that.
She is trying to protect Duncan from a world in which a janitor can place a bomb in a wash bucket and blow up a classroom. Ever since this happened to David's first grade class three weeks earlier in which one child is killed, Martha has been unable to sleep, unable to keep her son safe enough. She's planted catcus outside each window to ward of intruders and painted the bottom floor windows black with shoe polish. She worries that the house will catch fire while they sleep or that David will go to bed with a sniffle and be dead by morning. Martha knows that she has gone overboard, but she feels justified -- the world has proven to be not a good place. So she carefully sneaks Duncan away in the middle of the night to take the two of them someplace inviolable and this cave sitting above the Rio Grande seems to be the perfect answer. And who can blame her? As she says, "Forty million mothers would have followed me out here, if they had known this place existed."
On the otherhand, David is worried about Martha's sanity. He has hired a detective to track her down citing that she's in no condition to be wandering around somewhere. But we don't hear David's story. The little we know of him, we learn from the detective when he visits the Warden's home to find out the specifics of the new job and of course through Martha, who tells us bit by bit more about why she is doing what she is doing.
Martha and Duncan do make it to the cave and set up a home and per Hepinstall's usual skill, we see a wondrous place. At first it is dark and damp and claustophobic, but with Martha's "backpack full of candles, weapons in the war against hysteria," she rectifies this. She also has a supply of batteries to play her John Denver CDs. At one point the detective mentions that Martha likes Emmy Lou Harris, and I thought this was a typo until it dawned on me that Martha is so intent on making a safe world that she'll only trust John Denver's music for Duncan, and in fact, now sees Denver as a "misunderstood genius." Anyhow, they quickly settle into a routine which includes telling each other stories at night by pointing the flashlight at the stalactites in the cave, which resemble different shapes. The cave indeed feels like a very safe place.
For the most part Duncan behaves well and goes along with the flow though he does have a few kid moments of which Martha responds with her usual sense of humor, more grown up than you'd expect for her to converse with Duncan, yet fully in character for the kind of mother that she wants to be. She may be protective, but she tries to be respectful as well.
"We have everything we need, son." I told Duncan confidently, my voice perhaps a bit too high, my words too fast. "We have our own food, and we can always live off the land. Juniper berries, yucca blossoms, century plant hearts."
"I want spaghetti."
"Duncan, you will finish your century plant hearts or you will get no dessert."
He stared at me.
"That's a joke," I told him.
He gave me a smile that meant my attempt at humor, not the humor itself, was amusing, then wiped the sweat off his face.
Initially they are very playful, as in the opening lines at the start of this review, when Duncan tries "flying" from a tree branch. Though after eight days, as one would expect, it does begin to get harder for both of them and as does happen with mothers, she gets a little short tempered with her son and, true to the power of a child, he eggs her on. These scenes feel very natural. Meanwhile, Hershey bars are appearing mysteriously at the cave entrance donated by a stranger who turns out to be called Andrew. Andrew, it seems, is a man who knows that love can make a person crazy.
This is Hepinstall's third novel and each one is so different than the previous that it is a pleasure to see what she's cooked up with each new book. For not only is each very different, they are truly original ideas and told with real skill and with enough substance to make them good material for book clubs. The one thing her books have in common is that they leave haunting images that seem to linger in one's mind for a long time after. It's probably something to do with the characterization and the psychological suspense this author so skillfully creates.
The Prince of Lost Places is like a few of the other new fiction coming out these days. The Disapparation of James, The Boy on the Bus, and even The Lovely Bones tend to find analogous ways of relaying age old fears of parenthood. It's like an American form of magical reality, metamorphized to deal with our troubles rather than to just describe the magic of everyday lives. This style isn't likely to appeal to everyone, but it's hard for me to imagine that it wouldn't be enjoyed by anyone who likes a strong character study.
- Amazon readers rating: from 39 reviews
"The Absence of Nectar"
(Reviewed by Judi Clark SEP 03, 2001)
Boone took a forkful of Hamburger Helper and tried to guide it to his mouth. Just before the food touched his lips, my arm came to life and knocked the fork out of his hands. It flew across the room and hit the oven. Pieces of hamburger clung to the oven window.
"Damn it!" Simon shouted. He lunged for Boone, seized him by the back of the head and slowly began to force his head down into his plate. I pounded on Simon's back, but he ignored me.
"Please," said Meg, "let's not fight. Let's all just eat in peace."
Twelve year old Alice Fendar knows the "jig is up." Her stepfather, Simon Jester is going to kill her and her older brother Boone and their mother is going to let it happen. For weeks now Alice and Boone have been testing themselves for poison, watching Simon's every move and giving each other coded blinks to indicate which items were safe to eat, meaning which foods that Simon has had no chance to tamper with.
Life wasn't always like this. Their father used to live with them and he was a sweet-tempered man. That's when Meg's bees were still alive and she sold the honey to supplement the family income. When their father lived with them they also hadn't noticed Meg's weakness, her inability to protect her own children, her inhibition when she hadn't a man in her home. Then again, this wasn't something they needed to know back then.
Simon Jester came into their life late spring the previous year, during a swimming outing in Hollow Cove on Lake Shine. While Alice and Boone played at underwater dives, grabbing plants from the lake's bottom to prove their depths, their mother disappears beneath the water surface. Simon had been fishing from the shore, sees Meg go under and jumps in to save her from drowning.
From the start, Alice doesn't like Simon "I didn't like his ratty black ponytail. I hadn't liked him dry and I didn't like him wet. Somehow it wasn't the near-drowning that had spoiled our perfect day but the man himself." Alice is the only one of the three that is skeptical about Simon's tragic story which he shares at dinner. Three years earlier while enjoying a family picnic on that same Lake Shine, a storm suddenly comes up. Thinking he could safely return the rental boat before the brunt of the storm hits, Simon heads back to the marina with his family. Visibility is poor and he loses control of the boat resulting in his three-year-old son and young wife drowning. Boone, who believes in God and the good in everyone, and Meg, who'd accept just about any story from Simon, swallow up his tragedy with tears. Not Alice. She suspects that there is something not right about the story, telling us "a girl of savage faith has sharper instincts."
The reason they were at Lake Shine that day was because of Boone's desire to meet Persely Snow, an insane asylum escapee. Boone had been writing Persely over the years, hoping to help her redeem herself. Persely is the local Texans' infamous celebrity. When she was thirteen, Persely served poisoned Tang to her parents, killing her Mom and nearly her Dad. Over the past three years, Persely managed to escape from various asylums a half dozen times. Each time, the locals would take her in and hide her, the newsmen would go wild with sightings, and the police hunted her down. Whenever Persely was on the run, Boone put an ad in the paper asking her to meet him at Hollow's Cove, of which she had yet to comply. It seems, however, that they did meet a monster that day in Hollow Cove.
Alice tells us about the inevitable events of that summer giving us a colorful rendition of the Laird Family across the street with their brain damaged teenage daughter and the evil boy-girl twins who like to torture live creatures and go through the neighborhood garbage. She tells of her own love for a sad, allergy prone Polish boy named Spenser Katosky. And of the family dog, Numbhead, who was hit in the head by a go-cart when he was just a puppy, and is now "kinda stupid" going around gently holding a live toad in his mouth.
Alice is a "Smart Girl" with precocious insight into human nature. Boone, on the other hand, is more one dimensional, essentially, believing that all people have some good, no matter how bad they appear. Alice knows that it is this paradox, that he can love both God and Persely Snow, the abominable parent killer, which makes him so special. It is also what makes him psychologically paralyzed in the face of Simon Jester. Alice can't believe in Boone's God because she knows Simon is pure evil. Are some people just born "monsters?" In Alice's coming of age story, she learns that parents, adults and even God, can fail kids. That in a state like Texas in the early 1970s, sometimes there is absence of anyone. Sometimes mothers can come to your room at night and tell you to "Run."
Hepinstall is a powerful writer who can conjure up unconventional characters and plots in a style and skill that reminds me of John Irving. She knows how to move the suspense along by using repeat actions and predictable behavior. She tells us what's going to happen, then tells us why. Yet this doesn't mean we can guess the outcome. One way I judge a novel is if I'd want to reread it again. This one I already have read twice! Having finished the novel late on the weekend, I didn't have time to start writing the review. The next weekend, I reread Chapter One, something I often do to get started. Before I knew it, I was half way through the novel and decided to relax and enjoy it to the end all over again. Even knowing the outcome, I was held captive by Alice Fendar's colorful narration and observations. I highly recommend this novel and this author.
- Amazon readers rating: from 85 reviews
"The House of Gentle Men"
(Reviewed by Judi Clark JAN 05, 1999)
In the fall of 1941, Charlotte's mother burns to death. Within weeks of her mother's death, Charlotte is raped by three soldiers. Charlotte, now mute, easily hides the resulting pregnancy from those around and fortunately for her, the baby seems to sense the secret and stays small. She alienates herself from the townspeople and her girlhood friends. They only see her as the mute, grieving daughter of a saintly mother who died saving her son. Who would have the imagination to think that a "barely kissed, newly sixteen year-old Baptist girl" would conceive two weeks after her mother's death'? Certainly, not Charlotte herself.
And then there is her pyromaniac brother who is rumored to have burned his own mother. Unlike his sister, his words come fast and furious always racing to fill a void in hopes of staying ahead of his own worst self. And his only friend, a girl who can't stop cleaning. She sees his fires as the ultimate in germ elimination.
Through Hepinstall's mesmerizing words, the secrets of these lives and more are slowly revealed until one realizes the essence of the novel is its secrets, voiced or otherwise insinuated. And so many kinds of secrets at that - those that can haunt a life or a town and those that can alter the core of anyone around it. Secrets that are kept so far deep inside that they steal a voice. And a secret that festers in a man's heart and soul until he has no other choice but to return to the scene of his crime. There's an angelic boy who's secret nightly kisses wash away the tears of crying women. Once started, a myth remains a myth despite the chore of keeping truth a secret. There's a daughter who learns the art of finding secrets from a father who never meant to teach her. Finally, there is one secret so deeply shared by a town that it is taboo to talk about it at all.
For in the woods there is a house of gentle men. Men who seek contentment through atonement. They offer solace and chaste kindness to lonely and hurt women who sneak to this house each night. The secret way to treat a woman right is taught to the gentle men by a man who learned the lesson only after he lost his own wife through neglect. And so this fable-like book goes on, twisting the secrets until the bad is wrung out of each and every one of them.
Like the women making their way secretly to the house of gentle men, I envision this book quietly being passed from one woman to the next. It is one of those rare books that speaks volumes but any attempt at description negates its affect. I absolutely recommend Hepinstall's first novel to anyone who enjoys the art of language and the unique story an artist divines from its use. It would not surprise me if it ends up as a best seller or to find The House of Gentle Men has been (secretly) selected by Oprah's Book Club.
Amazon readers rating: from 101 reviews
Read a chapter excerpt from The House of Gentle Men at HarperCollins.com
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- The House of Gentle Men (2000)
- The Absence of Nectar (2001)
- Prince of Lost Places (2003)
- Blue Asylum (2012)
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- Official website for Kathy Hepinstall
- The House of Gentle Men official web site
- Brothersjudd.com review of The House of Gentle Men
- January Magazine review of The Absence of Nectar
- Curled Up review of The Absence of Nectar
- MostlyFiction.com review of Blue Asylum
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About the Author:
Kathy Hepinstall was born in Odessa, Texas, and spent a large part of her childhood two hours from the Louisiana border, where most her relatives reside. The House of Gentle Men was chosen as an Alternate for the Literary Guild, Borders' Original Voices and was number-one Los Angeles Times bestseller.
After a short stay in San Francisco, she now lives in Austin, Texas.