The House of Gentle Men
by Kathy Hepinstall
Published by Avon Books
341 pages, 2000
Buy it online
Reviewed by Margaret Gunning
The old-fashioned idea of atonement doesn't get much press these days. It's even less likely to show up as the underlying theme in a modern novel. First-time Texan writer Kathy Hepinstall has taken this quaint notion and created something fresh and original in her disturbingly beautiful parable of redemption and forgiveness, The House of Gentle Men.
What if there were a place for hurt souls to go where they could find refuge, tender companionship and a balm for all their wounds without fear of exploitation? It is a fantasy particularly appealing to women, who so often bear the brunt of violence and abandonment in relationships. And what if men who had done such violence could come to this place to make up for their past sins by becoming the gentle and attentive partners their women always yearned for?
Admittedly, this is a rather strange and not particularly plausible idea, but it is a tribute to Hepinstall's skill as a writer that she puts it across so convincingly. She takes a big risk here both with premise and plot, and her bold venture pays off handsomely.
In the deep woods of Louisiana during training maneuvers for World War II, a dreamy teenaged girl named Charlotte Gravin goes wandering in search of the man of her dreams. Her mother has just died in a fire rumored to have been set by her unstable brother Milo. Charlotte, dazed by trauma and entranced by wartime stories of instant romance, believes that the forest will somehow magically yield up the perfect lover to assuage her pain.
Instead the worst happens. Two soldiers seize and blindfold her and take turns raping her. When a third soldier comes upon the scene, this chilling conversation results:
"I've already gone myself," said Marty, the one standing.
The brutal attack leaves Charlotte unable to speak and, worse, pregnant. Too terrified to reveal her secret, she gives birth in the woods and abandons the infant on a tree stump:
Her baby was not a human, not a creature even, but a demon. A condemnation from God, an atrocity nurtured by the trimesters until it took form and weight.
A strange young woman named Louise Olen, so obsessed with cleanliness that she is given to scrubbing down tree stumps, finds the beautiful baby boy, names him Daniel and takes him home to her father, the proprietor of a strange establishment called the House of Gentle Men. Leon Olen began this house of refuge after his wife left him due to his chronic neglect. The place is staffed by men trying to repent for sins of the past and visited by local women at night in secret.
A prospective client asks, "What will the men do?"
Leon Olen explains: "Anything you want. Except intercourse. You see, the act of intercourse is violent by nature. Foreplay and afterplay are like pruning roses, whereas intercourse is like blasting stumps out of the ground. Don't you think?"
Through kisses and sweet words and gentle attention, these men hope to heal not only the women they minister to, but their own tormented souls.
The strange story takes a turn for the stranger. Several years later, Louise is scrubbing the front porch when she sees a new prospect arriving:
The man was tall, and his face was handsome and yet set in a vague half-wince, as though he'd been stung by some comfort he didn't feel he deserved.
Though this man is so guilt-ridden by what he has done that he tries to hang himself, he eventually asks to work for Leon Olen. When Charlotte appears at the house one night seeking healing for her own terrible wounds, she finds herself drawn to this brooding new man, whose name happens to be Justin. When he sees Charlotte he immediately recognizes her as the young woman he raped in the woods some seven years before.
That the two come to love each other is both completely implausible and thoroughly believable. The secret is in Hepinstall's extraordinary prose, shimmering with a weird beauty:
The night was good for love, in the same way that some nights are good for fishing. The moon pulls at a certain angle, the air turns a certain flavor, the breeze releases a certain amount of sugar and salt. And men and women respond to the changes, and their angel souls rock inside their animal bodies like catboats in a furious sea.
Even the minor characters in The House of Gentle Men are gravely damaged human beings seeking solace. Louise's adolescent brother Benjamin catches the women as they leave the house and seduces them, treating them with contempt. Charlotte's married friend Belinda pretends to have the perfect marriage while enduring violence and humiliation at home. Daniel the abandoned little boy, more angel than demon, aches for something he cannot even define.
Though this book should be depressing, it isn't, not when it is filled with so much insight and such hauntingly beautiful writing. Hepinstall uses unusual imagery and makes it work, as when she describes "a wooden floor smooth as a cut beet," or observes, "Love is just some sort of a sparkling peace." And you can practically smell her description of a raging house fire:
Upstairs, the fire gained in intensity, fed by unsent letters, pulled threads, fingernails, the wax of secret candles. It melted buttons. Broiled Panama hats on searing brass hooks. Turned the notches black on bedposts. Broke cologne bottles and tormented the scent within them.
The emotional and erotic tension sustained throughout the novel slowly escalates, picking up speed and intensity until it positively erupts at the end. This control over pacing is the sign of a masterful writer. Hepinstall does not see good and evil, grace and misfortune as opposites, but rather as forces locked inseparably into a dance with each other, the human dance. Such depth of insight is unusual, redeeming a story that in lesser hands might have seemed artificial or melodramatic and lending it the timeless quality of myth. | June 2000
Margaret Gunning has reviewed over 130 books but never gets tired of the grand adventure of reading. Her poetry has appeared in Prism International and Room of One's Own. She has written a novel (A Singing Tree) and a book of poems (Nonsongs and Neopsalms), and is currently at work on her second novel, Better than Life.