The House of Gentle Men
by Kathy Hepinstall
(Bard/Avon, $22, PG) ISBN 0-380-97809-1
***
A striking debut novel, The House of Gentle Men features an unusual plot, atmospheric setting and a thought-provoking theme. You may be disturbed by it, but you won't forget it.

Charlotte's voice was silenced seven years ago, when the 16 year old girl went looking for love in the Louisiana backwoods, but found instead unspeakable violence at the hands of three soldiers in training for World War II. Nobody was there to help Charlotte -- her mother had recently burned to death, her father was busy drowning his sorrows in drink, and her younger brother Milo was mired in guilt over his role in the fire. Nobody even noticed that Charlotte became pregnant as a result of the crime or that she gave birth in the woods by herself. Nobody knew what happened to the baby that Charlotte planned to kill as soon as he was born.

In 1948, a young ex-solider named Justin comes to a secluded home in Louisiana known as The House of Gentle Men. Justin has heard that men who seek redemption and forgiveness for their sins towards women confess their secrets and then "service" the local women who make nightly visits. They touch, kiss, dance with, and listen to their clients - but they are forbidden to fully make love. Justin has spent seven years trying to live with his guilt for a crime he committed before he went to war. He was young, scared and easily influenced by his fellow trainees, but he knows these are poor excuses. Mr. Olen, the House's owner and guardian, reluctantly allows Justin to enter the House of Gentle Men, but he has no idea that Charlotte is about the pay an unexpected visit, or that Justin's redemption is going to be much more complicated than anyone ever dreamed.

Charlotte and Justin's surprising relationship affects all of the novel's secondary characters, including Milo, Mr. Olen and his daughter Louise, who is obsessed with cleanliness and "bad men." Most of the book's inhabitants are haunted by past losses or sins. However, the characters, though distinctive, seem to represent symbols more than real people. The novel is compelling, but the reader never truly makes a connection to the characters.

Readers may also be bothered by the novel's negative portrayal of men. They are seen as innately violent, neglectful or outright cruel, and only able to redeem themselves if they are trained to act contrary to their natures. Come to think of it, women don't exactly shine either -- they're primarily weak victims of men's urges who are trapped in dreary marriages.

The author's writing is anything but tentative, belying her inexperience. The remote Louisiana setting comes alive as dense and oppressive -- a good place to hide sins and secrets. The clever intertwining of several subplots come together in a dramatic climax to the novel but then are cut short by an ambiguous ending. Hepinstall seems to be saying that there are many forms of redemption, but is one more worthy than the others? Does the final scene lead to hope or despair? I'm not sure I enjoyed The House of Gentle Men, but it definitely made me pause and think for a while. I suspect its plot will linger in my mind longer than those from most novels I've read lately. This would be an intriguing choice for a book club; I suspect it would generate some spirited discussion. Ms. Hepinstall is blessed with a great deal of talent, and I wonder where she will go with it next.

--Susan Scribner


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