Monthly Archives: February 2014

“The Kept” by James Scott

“You can’t shoot ghosts, son.”

-The Kept, James Scott

It seems peculiarly appropriate to be writing this review now, in the wake of all the crazy winter weather we’ve been having.  Non-southerners, quit snickering, a few inches is indeed paralyzing down here: our signing with James Scott was nearly snowed out a few weeks ago … it was almost too apt.  But now it’s pushing 70 degrees, so once again, order is restored.

As The Kept opens in the winter of 1897, Elspeth Howell is returning home after a four month absence, during which she was working as a midwife in a nearby town.  As she approaches the isolated family farm, however, a sense of desperate unease is triggered by nothing: the complete absence of ordinary sights, sounds, or even smells, playing perfectly into the cliché of “it’s quiet … too quiet”.  Her disquiet is justified – her husband and four of their five children have been brutally murdered, leaving twelve-year-old Caleb as the only survivor of the bloody attack that came seemingly out of nowhere.  Mother and son then embark on a quest to track down their family’s killers (three men wearing red scarves), but said quest is as much a journey into family history as it is a hunt for justice.  That goal is really the merest tip of the iceberg, where they must untangle the threads of the past in order to understand what happened on the farm … and above all, why.

We begin the novel seeing the Howells as a relatively ordinary family, with little unusual about them: as she walks home, Elspeth is preoccupied with missing her husband and running over the gifts she’s bringing the children, having kept meticulous lists so that no one is left out.  Despite their initial appearance, there is a great deal more seething and bubbling below the surface of this family, as we gradually come to the realization that the Howells are anything but ordinary.  The reality of the family, of their origins and of their past, is much darker than you’d expect from the opening pages.  They’ve lived in total and deliberate isolation, deathly afraid of someone discovering and breaching that isolation.  In fact, the first thing we learn about Elspeth is that she is a sinner, and she worries constantly about the consequences of those sins, and the enemies she’s made along the way, coming home to roost.  Very little about this family makes sense, especially at first, but the more you learn about them, the more you wonder and the more questions are raised.

Caleb and Elspeth each have their own demons, both haunted even before the traumatizing attack, and the situation isn’t helped by their tense, strange, almost nonexistent relationship: for all intents and purposes, they’re virtual strangers.  Elspeth’s husband, Jorah, was the primary care-giver for the children while she spent long periods of time away from home: she barely knew any of “the” children, as she refers to them, rather than “her” children.  Caleb has deliberately isolated himself from the rest of the family, choosing to live in the barn rather than the house and avoiding his father – a choice that no doubt saved his life.

As the novel progresses and as the pair travels away from the farm, both Elspeth and Caleb grow and change, inevitably so.  Elspeth is forced to confront her own past and the spreading ramifications of her actions: ripples in a pool, consequences that she never expected, and carrying a lot of guilty knowledge.  For the first time, she also begins to grow into the role of parent, protecting Caleb from things he isn’t ready to understand, trying to shield him from the world and her own secrets.  As tempting as it is to unburden herself and share the weight of her guilt with Caleb, she can’t bring herself to be that selfish, for the first time truly acting like his mother.  In a parallel journey, Caleb … grows up, and is forced to reconcile the inherent contradictions of humanity, contradictions that drove him to the barn in the first place, despite how confusing and unnerving he finds the world outside their farm.

Even beyond Caleb and Elspeth, everyone in this novel, everyone they encounter has secrets and unsavory things to hide.  All of the characters have so many stories, a whole lifetime of them, and yet all we get are fragments – which is frustrating and tantalizing and achingly true.  Elspeth does not even fully understand her own story, her own past – how can she possibly understand anyone else?

Caleb and Elspeth’s journey takes them both backwards and forwards in time, all at once, as they seek both vengeance in the present and future, and answers and understanding of the attack in the past – and yet they discover to their sorrow that the past cannot be changed, cannot be made whole, no matter how far you travel into it, or how much you wish to.  It’s a dark, hard, cruel world that Scott creates: Frank, one of the few truly decent characters they encounter, who does his best to help them, fears for the world his unborn child is about to enter.  By the novel’s end, their quest is over … and yet nothing is resolved, making it almost an exercise in futility, one turn of the wheel in the endless cycle of violence, vengeance and deception.




February 19, 2014 · 5:37 pm

“Flora” by Gail Godwin

“Wait a minute!” she cried.  “I think I know who you are, now.  You’re that haunted little girl, aren’t you?”

“I’d never thought about it that way,” I told her,” but I suppose I am.”

 – Gail Godwin, Flora

I’ve read many, many books that made me think, made me question, and puzzled me, but it’s rare that a novel really gets stuck in my head, lodged in my brain and refusing to budge, where I honestly can’t decide what, precisely, I think about it and how it makes me feel.  Flora by Gail Godwin is one such anomaly; how I see it, how I interpret the characters changes from moment to moment, and keeps changing, no matter how long I think about it!  I keep turning it over and over in my head, toying with all the varied nuances of plot and character, completely unable to come to any firm conclusions or opinion; it’s haunting and frustrating and enthralling.

Which I suppose is only appropriate, in a very meta sort of way, considering that Flora‘s narrator, Helen Anstruther, has done the exact same thing in-story with the events of the novel, and particularly with the title character, over the course of several decades; she’s never managed to come to any satisfactory conclusions about the summer of 1945, either.  Flora especially remains a conundrum to Helen, something totally beyond her ken, even years later.  Because she hasn’t been able to sort things out in her mind, it’s not surprising that I haven’t, either.

At age ten (almost eleven, as she makes very clear), Helen’s world had already spun off its axis even before the summer began, with the death of her beloved grandmother – who was not only her primary caregiver, but also her best friend.  Because her father cannot leave her alone for several months while he leaves town to do construction work in nearby Oak Ridge, Tennessee as part of the war effort, he invites her deceased mother’s first cousin, the titular Flora, to come care for his daughter.  Between Flora’s inability to drive and the isolated location of their home, coupled with a polio outbreak in town that leads to an informal quarantine, the two young women spend the summer in an almost complete vacuum, rarely leaving the house and hosting very few visitors.

Flora is only twenty-two, still very much a girl herself, and Helen quite frankly sees herself as the more mature of the pair.  She’s also a stark contrast to everyone Helen has grown-up with, with ready tears and openly, almost nakedly emotional, especially compared to Nonie, Helen’s dignified and reticent grandmother, and also her laconic and sarcastic father.  She has no layers, no depth: everything she feels is on display for the world to see.

The relationship between Helen and Flora is at the heart of the novel, and it is a curious one: uncertain and compelling, heart-breaking and intense, and above all, fraught with complications.  From the very beginning of their acquaintance, nearly everything about Flora irritates Helen, because, to put it simply, Flora isn’t Nonie.  In fact, Flora is as different from Nonie as it’s possible to be, and so she represents, in very physical form, every way that Helen’s world has turned upside down since her grandmother’s death and her father’s departure.  She’s embarrassed and annoyed with Flora’s ready emotions and easy familiarity and affection, and deeply resents all the changes Flora has brought into her life – so naturally, she lashes out.  The summer ends tragically for everyone concerned, and even years later, Helen questions how much of that tragedy was her responsibility and how much can be attributed to fate.

It’s a novel of remorse, and regret for things that cannot be changed.  Helen is carrying an almost staggering weight of guilt, remorse and responsibility for the shoulders of a ten-year-old as the summer begins, even if most of it exists only in her own mind, and that weight only increases as the days go by, haunted as she is by what might have been.  She blames herself for things that are only tangentially her fault, if at all.   Intensely imaginative and introspective, her deepest desire is for nothing else to change, and for her world to settle back into place.  Due to Nonie’s influence, she dwells very much upon the past and the stories her grandmother told her about their family, holding them close to her heart.  Unfortunately, not only does she think about the past constantly, she also romanticizes it, and sees nothing unusual about her lonely upbringing.  Flora is the first to bring to her attention how odd and isolated her life has been, which only deepens Helen’s resentment; no one likes have their illusions cracked and shattered.

My sympathy for Helen shifts constantly, alternating between seeing her as a lonely, grieving child, acting out because she’s so recently lost everything familiar to her, and a mini-Machiavelli, feeling superior to everyone around her and manipulating them just because she can.  Of course, this vacillation is precisely what makes the novel so interesting and compelling.  I found myself reading passages over and over again, teasing out nuances that might possibly help me make up my mind.  There’s so many emotions at work here, so much bubbling and seething beneath the surface, so many things that Helen was too young at the time to comprehend, let alone articulate.  Just as Helen debates her own complicity in the events of the summer and wonders how much was her fault, so too do we as the reader, and it’s a heartbreaking, fascinating conversation.


Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized