Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The Kept

The Kept by James Scott
HarperCollins: 1/7/2014
Hardcover, 368 pages

ISBN-13: 9780062236739

In the winter of 1897, Elspeth Howell treks across miles of snow and ice to the isolated farmstead in upstate New York where she and her husband have raised their five children. Her midwife's salary is tucked into the toes of her boots, and her pack is full of gifts for her family. But as she crests the final hill, and sees her darkened house and a smokeless chimney, immediately she knows that an unthinkable crime has destroyed the life she so carefully built.
Her lone comfort is her twelve-year-old son, Caleb, who joins her in mourning the tragedy and planning its reprisal. Their long journey leads them to a rough-hewn lake town, defined by the violence both of its landscape and of its inhabitants. There Caleb is forced into a brutal adulthood, as he slowly discovers truths about his family he never suspected, and Elspeth must confront the terrible urges and unceasing temptations that have haunted her for years. Throughout it all, the love between mother and son serves as the only shield against a merciless world.
A scorching portrait of guilt and lost innocence, atonement and retribution, resilience and sacrifice, pregnant obsession and primal adolescence, The Kept is told with deep compassion and startling originality, and introduces James Scott as a major new literary voice.
My Thoughts:

The Kept by James Scott is a dark, desolate, atmospheric, and extraordinarily well written novel. 
I very highly recommended The Kept.

The opening establishes the tone for the remainder of this notable debut novel set in 1897:
"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. Whenever she saw a church or her husband quoted verse or she touched the simple cross around her neck while she fetched her bags, her transgressions lay in the hollow of her chest, hard and heavy as stone. " Her sins, she tells us, castigating herself as she approaches her home, are anger, covetousness and thievery. Of her husband she notes, "It was as if he had turned piety into a contest and Elspeth lagged far behind."

But as Elspeth nears her home after being gone for months, she realizes that something is amiss. "It was then that the fear that had been tugging at her identified itself: It was nothing. No smell of a winter fire; no whoops from the boys rounding up the sheep or herding the cows; no welcoming light." (pg. 5) There should be noise from Jorah, her husband, and their five children: Amos, fourteen,  Caleb, twelve,  Jesse, ten,  Mary, fifteen, and Emma, six. The ominous quiet portends the unthinkable disaster that awaits her. Her whole family has been slaughtered. Before she can fully process what has happened, her middle son, Caleb, who was hiding in the pantry, mistakenly thinks the killers have returned and accidentally shoots her.

After Caleb tends to her wounds, Elspeth survives and the two take an awful trek over frozen land and through blizzards to try and find the three men Caleb saw who killed their family. The brutal weather is as much a character as the brutal men they are seeking to find as they head toward Watersbridge, a lawless town beside Lake Erie. 

Both Caleb and Elspeth are fueled by their need for revenge, but at first only Elspeth knows that there may have been a reason for the seemingly senseless slaughter. Their quest marks the end of innocence and his childhood for Caleb, but is fueled by other emotions for Elspeth. While you learn to care for Caleb and try to understand Elspeth, it is also clear that nothing good is going to come from their search. Clearly it examines how actions always have consequences and vengeance is best left to the Lord.

In The Kept by James Scott, we are presented with historical fiction in a literary novel with writing that transcends the ordinary. This is truly an extraordinarily well written novel.
But it is also a dark, violent, and hopeless tragedy. I'll be the first to admit that it might not appeal to some readers.  The tension is palatable and the dread steadily increases without relief. It is a relief to finish The Kept, if only to release the tension and melancholy that will threaten to overtake you, but it is a novel that will stay with you for a long, long time. 

Disclosure: My Kindle edition was courtesy of HarperCollins for review purposes.


James Scott was born in Boston and grew up in upstate New York. He holds a BA from Middlebury College and an MFA from Emerson College. His fiction has appeared in Ploughshares, One Story, American Short Fiction, and other publications. He lives in western Massachusetts with his wife and dog. The Kept is his first novel.



Anonymous said...

Even the feeling I get from reading your review is dark and oppressive ... I'm totally hooked! I can't wait to dig into this book and find out what is going on in there!

Thanks for being on the tour.

Lori L said...

The Kept is certainly a contender for my top books of 2014!