Kathy Hepinstall's The House of Gentle Men is a perfect debut. Told in deceptively unassuming language, this novel of loss, guilt and redemption touches the heart and satisfies the discerning reader's hunger for a beautiful story.
The House of Gentle Men sits tucked back in the Louisiana woods, safe from prying eyes. The proprietor, a man trying to win back the wife who left him and his lack of attention, employs men damaged by their pasts to give the women who come under cover of night the affection missing in their lives. There are many such women, considering only those who live in the small town nearby. And the horrors of the Second World War have left more than a few men aching to heal emotional scars. So it is that they do voluntary penance in the big pine house, denying themselves the fleeting satisfaction of sex to heal deeper wounds.
Charlotte is a local girl who was raped by three soldiers practicing military maneuvers at the beginning of American involvement in the war. The horror of that attack, which closely followed her mother's accidental death by fire, destroyed something inside her. Impregnated during the rape, she abandoned the secret child in the woods. She's not spoken in over half a decade, and her life is simple and empty in the first post-war years. A birthday gift by an old friend prompts her to visit the house in an attempt to find solace from her anguish.
The man she meets there is a mannerly young ex-soldier whose quiet, attentive demeanor allows her to come bit by bit farther back into the world. As time passes, and Charlotte continues to be "serviced" by Justin, she finds herself falling in love with him. She wants very much to tell him her dark secrets but is afraid that she will lose him when he discovers the truth of her past. For his part, Justin agonizes over telling Charlotte of his own unpunished crime, for which he is trying to atone at the house. The revelations of their twinned shames will tear them apart, but it is forgiveness and love that will bring them both back to wholeness.
The House of Gentle Men resonates with fear and hope. The lesser characters are as compelling and pained in their own ways as Charlotte and Justin. Richly atmospheric for all its simplicity, this book is a gorgeous, absolutely readable first novel that will leave its readers fulfilled, and desperately hoping that Kathy Hepinstall will do something as wonderful as this again soon.