THE KEPT by James Scott

Book Quote:

“The screen creaked behind her as Elspeth pushed open the front door. The house, usually heated to bursting on an early winter’s night, offered no respite from the cold. The kerosene lamp stood unlit in the middle of the kitchen table, the matches beside it. She removed her pack, and shook the snow from her hat and shoulders, stalling. She didn’t want to see what the light would offer.”

Book Review:

Review by Betsey Van Horn (JAN 18, 2014)

From the opening line of this striking debut novel, the mood and voice are both haunting and laced with shame.

“Elspeth Howell was a sinner.”

It is three years shy of the turn of the twentieth century, upstate New York, bitterly cold and snowy with grey, smudgy skies. Elspeth is trudging miles from the train station to her family’s isolated home, and she is carrying gifts for her five children and pious, Bible-quoting husband. She’s been gone for four months, not unusual for her midwifery practice. As she rises up the crest of the last hill, she sees her house:

“The small plateau seemed made for them, chiseled by God for their security, to hold them like a perfect secret.  She held her breath, hoping for some hint of life, and heard nothing but the far-off snap of a branch. Everything stood still. She could not make out the smoke from the chimney, and despite the late hour, no lamps shone in the windows. Elspeth began to run. She tripped, and her pack shoved her into the snow. Clawing with her hands, digging with her feet, she pushed herself upright and rushed toward home.”

Although the novel, stark and lean and elegantly written, progresses with a measured, lingering pace for most of the novel, it goes for the jugular at the outset. After a shocking tragedy that sets the premise for the rest of the story, the narrative continues languidly, but with terse prose, weaving in background information with current concerns. The momentum slows considerably, yet the writing keeps you absorbed, as the author delves into the deep-seated corners of character. Elspeth has morally wretched obsessions and impulses that underlie the events of this bleak and troubled tale. Guilt, shame, retribution, sacrifice, and the lengths we go to protect our family are mined with lyrical and somber mercy. Or is it merciless?

I’d rather not go further in describing this searing, harrowing story. As Elspeth and her twelve-year-old son, Caleb, journey by foot to search and avenge, the reader is immersed in the sense that the hunters are also the hunted. Scott’s descriptions are masterful, his extended metaphors gnawing and scorching. This is fine literature; if you don’t mind a slower-paced story, but one saturated in full characterizations, you will ride the suspense till the final, melancholy pages. I continue to contemplate this enigmatic story, its sense of deliverance like a ghost that trembles through the pages.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-0from 74 readers
PUBLISHER: Harper (January 7, 2014)
REVIEWER: Betsey Van Horn
EXTRAS: Excerpt
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January 18, 2014 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , , , , ,  · Posted in: Character Driven, Debut Novel, Family Matters, Literary

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