Avon Books ($13)
by Kiersten Marek
Margaret Atwood has described a moment in high school as she crossed a football field when a "large invisible thumb" pressed down on her head and granted her a poem, a "sinister" and beautiful gift. Atwood's keen sense of the mysterious process of writing made me wonder about Kathy Hepinstall and the genesis of her first novel, The House of Gentle Men. At an early age, Hepinstall, like Atwood, seems to have gained exclusive access to a disturbing and luminous world.
In this mesmerizing narrative, the year is 1941 and the place is Louisiana. Hundreds of soldiers are training in the backwoods before going off to war. In the midst of this historical moment of collective lust and fear, Hepinstall creates a netherworld called the "House of Gentle Men," a place where men will do whatever women want.
Hepinstall begins like a realist, describing the Southern staples of life: Spanish moss and magnolia, mayhew jelly and pickle jars, but soon the prose takes a turn for the quasi-surreal. A teenage girl in the South, setting off into the forest to practice the age-old ritual of infanticide? The premise is unlikely, but soon the reader is deeply involved in the lives of Charlotte, the central heroine, and her impulsive and bizarre brother, Milo. The two are outcast teenagers who must fend for themselves in the wake of their mother's death by immolation. It would almost be nice if Hepinstall glossed over some of this tragedy, but she constantly lures the reader in. Her scenes of the strange bordello love being practiced at the House of Gentle Men have the cadence of Tennessee Williams; at the same time the dialogue and action portray men abdicating to women's desires. The effect is a place akin to Superman's Bizarro world, where everything is simultaneously the same and opposite.
Hepinstall draws her scenes with details that latch on and won't let go, from the sound of flames burning skin (like small kisses), to the way a mother cuts her beloved child's fingernails, right down to the mental contortions of a man raping a woman. The points-of-view in this novel keep switching but the writing stays the same—cool and exact, exquisitely rendering scene after scene of human sorrow, lust, fury, rebirth. Hepinstall follows each character through their traumas, not abandoning them (like so many contemporary authors) before the story is really over. With the steady hand of inspiration, she makes discernible both the atrocious depths and the inimitable latitudes of human experience.
With regard to representing the atrocious, Hepinstall recently confided in an interview that critics have accused her of not liking men. Fortunately she is too wily to be pigeonholed. "Of course I like men," she responded. "I think, for all their faults, men don't have that vague disappointment in women that women have in men." In the more synchronous world of The House of Gentle Men, there is very little to disappoint.
Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2001 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2001