Saturday, January 18, 2014

Book Review: "The Kept" by James Scott

Gothic. That's the word that kept coming to mind when I was reading James Scott's The Kept. Not quite creepy but definitely atmospheric, this was a tense, compelling book that kept me hooked and wondering what was going to happen next.

One snowy day in upstate New York in 1897, Elspeth Howell returns to her home after spending a few months away working as a midwife and doctor's assistant in a distant town. She comes bearing gifts for each child (she's been gone so often that she has to keep a list of their ages), and looks forward to seeing her husband, Jorah, and their five children, even though her returns home are always a bit awkward.

Yet when she arrives at her house, she finds disaster. Her husband and four of her children were murdered, and her 12-year-old son Caleb appears to be missing. And then, startled by his mother's arrival, Caleb accidentally shoots Elspeth, thinking that the murderers had returned. This continues the unthinkable nightmare for Caleb, a child more comfortable in silence than speaking, one whose nightmares led him to sleep in the barn near the family's animals, as their presence comforts him.

Caleb worries that he has killed his mother, and tries to nurse her back to health. And when another mishap destroys the family's home, Caleb must carry Elspeth through the snow. They come upon the town of Watersbridge in search of the killers, and as they try to find them, they both happen upon jobs—Elspeth, pretending to be a man, begins working at an icehouse, while Caleb becomes a servant at an inn serving the town's gambling, prostitution, and violent urges.

It turns out Elspeth has far more secrets than Caleb could ever imagine, and Elspeth believes the tragedy visited upon her family was in retribution for her sins. As Caleb starts to find out more about who he truly is, and the truth about his mother, he is torn between hatred and loyalty, but ultimately, he is determined to make those who killed his siblings and his father pay. And Elspeth feels that seeing this mission to its end, no matter how it turns out, is the only way she can atone for what she did.

There's more to this book, but I'm going to get further into the plot (although some reviews have), because I think some of its appeal lies in the way the story unfolds. Caleb is a fascinating character—a fearful, troubled child who at the start of the book almost seems to have some sort of intellectual disability, but it turns out he's just been sheltered by his Bible-loving father and his absent mother. Elspeth is very complex—you understand her motivations and yet cannot sympathize with her actions, but you still feel sorry for her.

As I first started reading the book, I wasn't sure what was going to happen, but James Scott hooks you fairly quickly and doesn't divulge everything right away. It's a strange and slightly creepy book, but Scott is an excellent storyteller, and I'm really glad to have found The Kept.

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