The Absence of Nectar
by Kathy Hepinstall
Published by Putnam
320 pages, 2001
Buy it online
The Taste of Truth
Reviewed by Margaret Gunning
Sometimes, one line in a novel will jump out at you like a flash of lightning, searing itself into your consciousness like a brand. Such is the dizzying, even frightening power of the written word. In Kathy Hepinstall's second novel, that one line flares in the darkness, lighting up a work which might otherwise suffer from an insoluble murkiness.
Hepinstall's first novel The House of Gentle Men was about a woman who falls in love with her rapist. The fact the author was able to make a nearly impossible premise believable, even riveting, means that she is a literary force to be reckoned with. In The Absence of Nectar she once again wades bravely in, choosing raw, disturbing subject matter and never flinching from the consequences.
Eleven-year-old Alice and her 14-year-old brother, Boone, are living in a state of chronic terror in their shabby little home in rural Texas, circa 1970. Their downtrodden, emotionally dependent mother has just remarried and their new stepfather exudes a sense of menace like a foul smell. Simon Jester's first act on the opening page is to press a hot spatula against Alice's face, leaving a scar for life:
My mother, who insisted that her children call her by her first name, Meg, found me later on the porch and rubbed a white cream into the long, thin blister. 'It's the heat, Alice,' she murmured, still rubbing. 'Makes him touchy.'
Simon worms his way into the family's life in the guise of a hero. Meg, divorced by her faithless first husband and rudderless in more ways than one, might have drowned during a picnic on Lake Shine if Simon hadn't jumped in and saved her. But Alice sees through the rescuer's mask immediately:
The man's voice was a silky thing. Silky as the plants at the bottom of a lake. I didn't like the way he held my mother, or the way he'd pushed Boone down. I didn't like his ratty black ponytail. I hadn't liked him dry and I didn't like him wet. Somehow it wasn't the near-drowning that had spoiled our perfect day but the man himself.
Meg, desperate for security, is barely able to feed her children on her paltry income as a beekeeper. She decides to believe Simon's fishy-sounding story that his first wife and son died tragically (another drowning on Lake Shine), marries him and becomes pregnant, blithely ignoring her children's terrible anxiety that Simon is trying to poison them.
If Alice is obsessed with her stepfather's evil, Boone is even more preoccupied with a very strange local celebrity; a teenaged girl named Persely Snow, infamous for the fact that she poisoned her parents. Incarcerated in a mental hospital, the feisty, savage Persely keeps escaping and making headlines. Convinced that God's love can redeem her, Boone writes her lovestruck letters and keeps scrapbooks of her escapades.
There is more than a touch of the macabre in Hepinstall's emotional landscape, with Alice making bizarre sacrifices of her most cherished possessions to ward off Simon's evil:
My old Barbie doll, my silver ring, my favorite socks, my Lincoln Logs, bright marbles and a see-through belt with Mickey Mouse faces in between the holes. Night after night I whispered in the dark: Make him go away! Make him love someone else! ... My lazy god ate my possessions and then gave me the finger.
The Laird twins who live next door are like something out of Children of the Damned and their brain-damaged sister Lucinda is a grotesque, half-living human doll. Even the family dog, Numbhead, is somehow off-center, carrying a toad around in his mouth, then mysteriously dying, presumably due to Simon's poison.
Dark stuff indeed, sometimes to the point of suffocation. Were it not for Hepinstall's gift for creating atmosphere, it might be too murky to work at all. But this dinner-table scene illustrates her skill at pulling it off:
Boone and I exchanged looks. The air pressure around the table had dropped, so low the tea almost sank in the glass. Nimbus clouds gathered. Lightning flashed.
Simon's rather stereotypic bad-guy persona can be tiresome, and Meg's blandness is irritating. But these weak spots in characterization are redeemed by Persely Snow, a fierce individualist with a wildly implausible but still compelling connection to Alice and Boone. There are dimensions to Persely, depths, hidden scars, veins of surprising tenderness. When they try to pry the real story of how she poisoned her parents out of her, she embellishes and hedges. But when they doubt her, she comes out with the line that, for me, makes the entire novel worthwhile. "Listen to me," she tells Alice, "'cause this is real important. Let me tell you this like a friend. Even if that wasn't my real story, and I'm not saying it wasn't, no one gives a shit about your real story. Not your friends, not your mama, not the cops, not teachers, not God. But you have got to give a shit. You've got to guard your real story, Alice. If you guard it, it'll mean something. You see?"
It's a harsh, subversive fact that people are often much more willing to accept a glossy, ribbon-tied lie than the raw truth, especially if it tells them what they want to hear. As survivors of childhood abuse know all too well, Perseley's scathing statement "no one gives a shit about your real story" has all the beauty and integrity of a wrenching, difficult truth. And her words about guarding your real story tell us something essential about the true purpose of fiction which is, ironically, to reveal truth through storytelling.
I was willing to forgive so much the awkward 1970s references to Easy-Bake ovens and Lite Brite sets, the sometimes heavy-handed portrayals of evil for the sake of Persely's gutsy, dazzling speech. And though the ending of this strange tale is just as implausible as all the rest of it, The Absence of Nectar stands up as a worthy novel for the uncomfortable, burning truths it reveals. More poison than honey, in the final analysis it has the unmistakable taste of reality. | January 2002
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. She has written two novels, A Singing Tree and Better Than Life, and is at work on a third, Nola Mardling. She lives in Vancouver with one fat cat named Murphy and one nice husband named Bill.