Author: James Scott
Genre: general fiction, historical fiction
Pages: 368 (hardcover edition)
Published: January 7 2014
Source: TLC Book Tours for review
Set in rural New York state at the turn of the twentieth century, superb new talent James Scott makes his literary debut with The Kept—a propulsive novel reminiscent of the works of Michael Ondaatje, Cormac McCarthy, and Bonnie Jo Campbell, in which a mother and her young son embark on a quest to avenge a terrible and violent tragedy that has shattered their secluded family.
In the winter of 1897, a trio of killers descends upon an isolated farm in upstate New York. Midwife Elspeth Howell returns home to the carnage: her husband, and four of her children, murdered. Before she can discover her remaining son Caleb, alive and hiding in the kitchen pantry, another shot rings out over the snow-covered valley. Twelve-year-old Caleb must tend to his mother until she recovers enough for them to take to the frozen wilderness in search of the men responsible.
A scorching portrait of a merciless world — of guilt and lost innocence, atonement and retribution, resilience and sacrifice, pregnant obsession and primal adolescence — The Kept introduces an old-beyond-his-years protagonist as indelible and heartbreaking as Mattie Ross of True Grit or Jimmy Blevins of All the Pretty Horses, as well as a shape-shifting mother as enigmatic and mysterious as a character drawn by Russell Banks or Marilynne Robinson.
With a narrative that reads very much like a straightforward revenge tale, The Kept evolves into a much more complex story. Though Scott went to some unexpected and very different places with Elspeth and her son Caleb, this debut novel is engaging in a horrible, bleak, grim kind of way. The two main characters have a hard lot from the first chapter, but James Scott's purposeful prose, methodical voice, and direct style firmly keep The Kept from veering into melodrama.
With an excellent and memorable beginning, Scott's story is a grim one from the outset. The sensational beginning, while not exactly full of emotion, isn't the point, however. It's all in the fallout from that first violent act and the how and why of when it happened and to whom. The Kept isn't just a revenge tale, but it's not quite fully a mystery, either. Despite the nature of Caleb's personal quest for answers and vengeance for his family, the story is really about his mother, Elspeth and how the past can affect the future. It's a slowly paced story that matures from a revenge story into a reckoning of past sins.
If slower-paced, character-focused stories aren't a good fit for the audience, then certain sections of The Kept will be hard going. Though it only captures about a month time period total, there's not a lot of action to be be found once Elspeth and Caleb reach the small town Watersbridge. There is some, but this is far from a bloodsoaked thriller. For the most part. That's not to say it isn't readable or completely atmospheric, because it is, but it makes for a much slower pace, both in the story and as a reader. That section is solid, but just lacks the utter readability of the first several chapters.
A stark novel with a less than cheerful outlook, the atmosphere in The Kept is all encompassing. It's bleak and uncompromising but reads authentically. It feels like 1897 in a cold winter in upper New York state. Elspeth's story is full of layered and interesting people, but it really is the pervasive atmosphere that best sells The Kept. Scott's distinct style fits his chosen brand of story well.
However, the characters are a small issue. I found the entire lot of them to be at least interesting, but you never feel invested in any of them. The third person perspective used is very remote in this story so it always consciously feels like you're an outside observer watching a story unfold. Which, as a reader, you are, but the best characters involve you so completely you can't tell fact from fiction. It's a small note, but I just never really connected to anyone as much as I would've liked.
For a debut novel, The Kept is an impressive effort. The author is a gifted storyteller and fans of No Country for Old Men/True Grit type of fiction will find a lot to enjoy about James Scott's first novel.
Tuesday, January 7th: Drey’s Library
Wednesday, January 8th: A Bookish Way of Life
Thursday, January 9th: Bibliophilia, Please
Monday, January 13th: Books in the Burbs
Thursday, January 16th: Broken Teepee
Monday, January 20th: Tina’s Book Reviews
Tuesday, January 21st: The Reader’s Hollow
Wednesday, January 22nd: Man of La Book
Thursday, January 23rd: Bibliophiliac
Tuesday, January 28th: she treads softly
Thursday, January 30th: No More Grumpy Bookseller
Monday, February 3rd: A Bookworm’s World
Tuesday, February 4th: Giraffe Days
Wednesday, February 5th: Ace and Hoser Blook
Thursday, February 6th: Ageless Pages Reviews