Kathy Hepinstall found a readership with her lyrical novels The House of Gentle Men and The Absence of Nectar. In true Southern Gothic tradition, her prose reflects the human condition when cast against a stark background of good and evil, her quirky protagonists illuminated by hope. In her third novel, Prince of Lost Places, Hepinstall deviates from her successful formula, in a spare story with a contemporary theme.
Martha is a young mother overwhelmed by the recent violence at her son's school. Unable to quell her fears, Martha kidnaps the young Duncan in the dark of night, leaving her sleeping husband behind. With a pervasive sense of guilt, Martha rationalizes the urgent need for flight from what she perceives as imminent danger and a husband who refuses to validate her reality.
Martha and Duncan begin an isolated existence in a remote Rio Grande cave, carrying limited supplies. Each time Duncan asks after his father, Martha temporizes by promising that "Daddy will be here soon." Not really equipped for the rigors of an extended wilderness sojourn, physically or emotionally, Martha cautiously accepts help from a stranger, a kind man searching for his own solitude. Finally, with the appearance of the husband, Martha is distraught and confused, caught between love and the dark fear that haunts her dreams.
Unlike Hepinstall's previous works, Prince of Lost Places is plot-driven, and, unfortunately, the characters suffer a lack of depth and believability. Without the Gothic trappings, the cave setting adds little to the tension in the plot, beautiful, yet barely more than a postcard panorama. The dialog is disconnected, often graceless and forced, as if the story hasn't enough texture to sustain these intimate conversations.
By the end of Prince of Dark Places, everything falls together and Hepinstall's intent is clear. For this reader, it takes too much effort to get there. I applaud her effort at a different style, but I am such a fan of her previous work that I hope Hepinstall continues to mine the source of her original efforts, the bounty of her layered and emotive prose.