Kathy Hepinstall's The Absence of Nectar is a poignant and haunting novel of great intensity set in the heat of a slow Texas summer, delivering on the promise the author showed in her assured first novel, The House of Gentle Men.
Twelve-year-old Alice's world changes dramatically when the ominous figure of Simon Jester invades her sad yet peaceful world. Jester, a hot-tempered stranger with a questionable story behind his first family's death, seduces Alice's mother, Meg, causing her to put her children, Alice and fourteen-year-old brother Boone, in harm's way. Induced by what he perceives as their betrayal of him, Simon's
anger steadily rages out of control. Boone's obsession with the escaped mental patient Persley Snow, a girl convicted of poisoning her parents, forces the familial situation to its breaking point. Simon, forbidding Boone contact with Persely, demands a sacrifice for what he terms the ultimate "betrayal" of patricide. The children watch as their mother permits Simon's horrible treatment of them, and begin to fear for their lives, sniffing for poison in every meal -- every glass of milk. Alice, amid her mother's sad indifference and her brother's dreaminess, is a voice of reason and logic in this novel, uncovering the symptoms of every poison -- every antidote. An escalating pattern of horror and violence forces the novel to its breaking point, as one evening Meg comes into the children's room and utters one word:"Run". The children, fleeing from their home, escape to an island with the hunted Persely Snow, eventually learning the truth about Simon's past, and thus putting themselves in even greater danger. The result is a tragic, but inevitable and unforgettable, ending.
The Absence of Nectar is very much about the ways in which we deal with terrible situations-- i.e., how to search for meaning in tragedy. Meg remains indifferent and blind to the horrible truth throughout much of the novel, while Boone is religiously forgiving and benevolent until pushed beyond his limits. Alice attempts to change fate by unsuccessfully performing her own pagan sacrifices of valuable things -- toys, dolls, possessions -- to the holly bush in the yard to win back her father and remove Simon from their lives. Simon, cruel and enraged, demands a sacrifice for every wrongdoing, every betrayal. We learn how circumstance changes us, the ways we can behave when pushed to the limit. The novel is also about cruelty, and those capable of it or not.
This novel is almost wonderful beyond words, with its themes and nuances, symbols and foreshadowings running deep throughout the novel. A creeping and increasing sense of unease urges the reader forward, even as it hints at the tragedy to come. Its opening scene burns indelibly into your mind, much like Alice's face is burned by the spatula in Simon's hand in an act of unreasonable cruelty. Alice, as a narrator, is a delight, sarcastic and humorous despite her underlying despair. Even characters like Meg, who enrages the reader with her indifference, are melancholic and well-drawn, evoking both compassion and pity. The narrative structure is excellent, providing you with a glimpse of incidents at the crisis point, then providing the story behind it -- the horror of events unfolding. The exquisiteness of the story is compounded by the novel's intense and memorable prose style. At one point, Alice ponders the existence of the horrible things around her:
In Texas, land of wild proportions. Very mean stepfathers. Extra-rattly snakes. Profoundly crazy girlfriends. Dangerously deep lakes. Rodeo bulls with oversize testicles. Horribly brain-damaged neighbors. Passive mothers. Terrified brothers, Dead dead dogs. Even the bees could not be bees. They had to make their own tragedy, dying in gouts and from every available cause, like Mr. Walt's children. Just once I wanted a moderate day, in a sweet-tempered village by a calm blue sea.
A novel of great tragedy and emotional depth, The Absence of Nectar is a wonderful achievement and highly recommended.