Prince of Lost Places
by Kathy Hepinstall
Published by Putnam
208 pages, 2003
Missing the Bar
Reviewed by Margaret Gunning
I so wanted to love this book.
Having reviewed Kathy Hepinstall's first two novels in glowing terms for their daring turns of story and piquant writing, I had high expectations for Prince of Lost Places. My appetite was already whetted for more of this gifted author's peculiar magic.
The House of Gentle Men was a highly implausible, irresistible story about a woman falling in love with her rapist, and The Absence of Nectar featured the stepfather from hell, a character so demonic he practically had horns and a tail. But in each case Hepinstall pulled it off, leaping over credibility problems with sheer audacity coupled with writing that flowed with all the relentless intensity of hot lava.
Prince of Lost Places lacks the quirky twists that characterized her first two ventures. Oh, it's quirky all right -- the story of a traumatized mother kidnapping her six-year-old son and going to live in a cave on the Rio Grande, while her distraught husband hires a detective to track her down. But it's just not Hepinstall quirky. At times, it threatens to topple into cliché, and the writing lacks that searing snap that made the other two so utterly absorbing.
The novel opens with David Warden talking to a detective about his wife Martha's disappearance: "She's very fragile," said the man. "She was a good mother. Still is, the way she sees it. I love her. You ever love someone who's crazy?"
Who is crazy and who is sane turns out to be a major theme in this novel. What drove Martha to abandon her small flower shop and escape her cozy Ohio home for the wilds of the Tex-Mex border is the death of a little girl named Linda, her son Duncan's playmate. Linda has died in an explosion set off by a demented janitor at Duncan's school. This trauma cracks Martha's already fragile mental health, though she placates her husband by making a futile visit to a psychiatrist who tells her she should be hospitalized.
The shrink has his reasons, though they will not be made apparent until much later in the story. Martha recounts a revealing episode when her son was born:
When I had Duncan, the doctor said there was something wrong with my pelvis. They put me under for the delivery. ... All night long I would struggle out of sleep and say, 'Where is he?' to the nurse. The nurse would say, 'He's fine, he's fine,' and I'd fall back into some haze. ... By morning I was hysterical because they wouldn't bring my son to me. When they finally put him in my arms, I wouldn't give him back. I screamed at them, told them never to keep my son from me again.
Teetering on the brink of total breakdown, Martha lures Duncan into the family station wagon and takes off, convinced that "my husband, who thought I was crazy, was crazy himself." Following directions given to her by an old man who frequented her flower shop, she finds a habitable cave full of eerie natural calcite sculptures on the river, and sets up camp there with Duncan.
The story begins to lose credibility when a mysterious stranger begins to leave Hershey bars at the cave entrance (he has overheard Duncan talking about missing sweets). Of course, every Hepinstall novel has its unbelievable elements, but in this case the attraction that forms between Martha and the man who calls himself Andrew is a little too trite and stereotypic to be convincing.
First he calls her "sister," which I haven't heard since the last time I watched an old Humphrey Bogart movie. Then he impresses them by making a fire in the cave:
"The secret is in the blowing. You must seduce the ember. Make it feel like becoming a flame is its own idea rather than yours."
A description of Andrew treating Martha to a little beefcake when he goes for a swim is too Harlequinesque for comfort:
He hesitated, then unbuttoned his shirt and slid it off. His torso was rangy, his muscles lean and tight. ... I watched as he removed his pants. The shedding of his clothes seemed to radiate his scent. He did a half-turn and pulled off his shorts, exposing the side of his pale flank. I caught my breath, surprised. Had Miss Manners burrowed into a cave, she would have called this nudity inappropriate. But she was far away, back in a land full of rules and violence.
Unfortunately that passage fails to generate any real heat. Another problem was the fact that I couldn't seem to get involved with any of the characters, or even care about them sufficiently to be deeply drawn into the story. Andrew has a past, but it too is stereotypic: he hits the bottle too hard, he has a scar on his face, and lousy luck with dames. Martha is so neurotic as to be offputting. By the conclusion we're treated to a true Hepinstall twist, but it's within a few pages of the end, and provides the only hair-prickling moment in a book that otherwise falls rather flat.
At least, it fell flat for Hepinstall. Two great novels set the bar very high, and in this case she just wasn't able to clear the jump. | March 2003
Margaret Gunning has been reviewing books for many years but never gets tired of the grand adventure of reading. Her poetry has appeared in Prism International, Capilano Review and Room of One's Own. Her novel, Better Than Life, will be published in 2003. She lives in Vancouver with one fat cat named Murphy and one nice husband named Bill.