Thursday, January 16, 2014

The Kept

James Scott’s debut novel The Kept tells a dark and gripping tale set in rural New York during the turn of the twentieth century. “Elspeth Howell was a sinner. The thought passed over her like a shadow as she washed her face or caught her reflection in a window or disembarked from a train after months away from home.” Those thoughts from Elspeth mark our introduction to this enigmatic woman. As a midwife returning from a nearby city where she plied her trade, Elspeth was making the arduous trek on foot from the train station during a snowstorm seemingly growing in intensity the closer she drew to home. She rushed her steps as “something nagged at the back of her head, threatening to push forward and topple her.” As she crossed the cornfields and trudged beside the creek which provided their water she was finally able to identify her fear – “it was nothing.” It was the absolute stillness – no smell of a winter fire, no lights in the windows.

Now running and tripping towards her home the sights before her sent her whimpering to her knees and then staggering from room to room as each image proved more gruesome than the next. Each one of them gone – brutally murdered; 6-year old Emma outside by the front steps, 15-year old Mary and 14-year old Amos in the kitchen, 10-year old Jesse right outside the door of his parents room, and Jorah in his bed. Twelve-year old Caleb, the solitary boy that “spent most of his time in the barn, sleeping among the animals, talking to them when he got lonely” was the only one missing. As she searched the house, Elspeth knew she “had her enemies, and her sins were tied with the Devil’s strings to those she’d wronged;” then all of a sudden a shot rings out, a flash and then she's flying through the air, her body torn asunder.

Hiding in the barn, Caleb had watched the three gunmen depart and later haunted by his guilt and the sight of those still bodies, he’d hid in the pantry for days fearing the gunmen would return for him. Cringing with every noise, unsure if they were just fabrications of his terror, Caleb heard the noise in the kitchen and this time he was brave like his father would’ve wanted, and unlike before this time he used his shotgun and fired a shot; only to be sickened by the sight of his injured mother when he opened the door. Numb but resolved Caleb cares for his mother (digging out each ball of shot with a knife, changing her bandages, nursing her fever); he didn’t fear killing her since he was certain she was going to die no matter what he did. Despite sounding like death for nearly a week “as if her life was being pulled from her body forcibly”, Elspeth survived and each day got a little stronger. Together with Caleb, they made plans for the future and how they’d kill the men responsible. “Instead of giving thanks for what she’d been spared, she grew angrier at what had been taken from her, and a hunger grew…to find the men responsible and snatch everything from them with equal cruelty.”

Finally, the two begin their journey unsure of where their search would lead them; unaware that the countless miles of hunger and exhaustion would culminate in Watersbridge, the town of Caleb’s birth. Elspeth knew her return there had been inevitable and that this had to be her reckoning; she had sins, secrets and apologies to share with Caleb and despite her unworthiness she prayed he could forgive.

I both loved and hated this incredible debut novel that grabs your heart and squeezes, makes your stomach plummet and your muscles tense with each surprising revelation; a compelling and unforgettable story that’s been compared to some of Cormac McCarthy’s classics. I loved the compelling revenge plot, the secrets, the complex characters, but I hated the tale's resolution; I felt after so much suffering the characters or better said Caleb, deserved better. Despite the fact that the best word to describe this book is “bleak” – from the landscape, to the characters, to the ending – it was still a jaw-clenching kind of page-turner that I couldn’t put down.

Right from the book’s intriguing first sentence, Scott captures the reader’s imagination, leaving you instantly hooked by the mystery behind Elspeth’s sins; what are they? Does she deserve retribution or redemption? Will she get either? We slowly learn the truth of Elspeth and by extension Caleb through her fevered dreams while she’s near death and later through her shared thoughts and memories. I’ve made a point of limiting my review to the events that set the course for the book without revealing Elspeth’s secrets because they drive the character development and the inevitable outcome of a tragedy that was years in the making.

I empathized with Elspeth for the sins which she carried as a burden on her soul for so many years, but seeing the repercussions of her actions landing squarely on Caleb’s too slim shoulders, I can’t say I forgive her. Caleb broke my heart. A child whose innocence is stolen from him by the sins of a distant mother that returns his love too late; forced to grow up and put aside childhood dreams and hopes. Even at the tender age of 12 Caleb is a better man than many of the adults around him; showing honor, loyalty, kindness, and forgiveness; and magnanimous enough to separate the sinner from the sin.

The Kept also touches lightly on issues of racism and sexual prejudice, though they are not pivotal to the tale. At its heart, The Kept is a tale about redemption, forgiveness, and lost innocence, as well as a cautionary tale about the sins of the father (in this case the mother). Its simple tale offers a heart-wrenching reminder that sometimes justice is best left to God.