Saturday, January 18, 2014

The Kept

by James Scott

I'm still reeling a bit from reading James Scott's The Kept. As a first novel, it is striking and memorable. This is the perfect dead-of-winter novel; it's cold and clear and dark and beautiful.

Just the fist few pages of this novel are a smack in the face. You only just meet Elspeth Howell, and you already know that nothing about her life is going to be the same. It's 1897 upstate New York. Elspeth is trudging through the deep snow, returning from her last job as a midwife, to her isolated home, only to find it dark. No smoke coming out of the chimney. And a body next to her front door. Scott doesn't ease his readers into this scene. It's a shock to the system. It's brutal.

But Scott counters the violence and brutality of this moment, and of more to come, with really elegant descriptions. His language isn't flowery or decorative, and yet, this snowy landscape is beyond being only stark. Scott's use of metaphor and simile color and shade the world he created, without clouding it.

I don't want to give too much away, but this novel took turns I didn't expect, making the story pleasantly difficult to predict. In a way, it resists classification. It isn't strictly historical fiction or a dustbowl Western-type. Both Elspeth and her twelve-year-old son Caleb change immensely over the course of the novel. They are stoic and largely unknown to each other when the novel opens. Gradually they unearth secrets, voicing their fears and suspicions, and learn more about one another than they ever knew before, and my heart broke for them every step of the way.

The Kept is a dark novel, for sure, but it is so much more that just that. As I described it to Scott, it's devastating, but in the loveliest way.

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