Reviews

Prince of Lost Places by Kathy Hepinstall

John Sears

Hepinstall's writing comes inflated by high praise.


Prince of Lost Places

Publisher: G. P. Putnam's Sons
Length: 208
Formats: Hardcover
Price: $23.95
Author: Kathy Hepinstall
US publication date: 2003-01
Amazon
"Keep violence in the mind
Where it belongs."
� Brian Aldiss, "Charteris"

Kathy Hepinstall's writing comes inflated by high praise, from the Toronto Star's lauding of The Absence of Nectar as "a great novel and a terrific work of suspense" to Terry McMillan's description of The House of Gentle Men as "a tour de force". Her new novel explores, subliminally and even, perhaps, unconsciously, aspects of the cultural response to the trauma of 9/11, condensed into the crisis experienced by a single woman in response to a random act of terrorism.

A janitor at the school attended by Martha's son turns up to work one day with a bomb strapped to his chest. One child is killed and several others injured, and Martha's psychotic reaction to this absurd, tragic incident constitutes the substance of Prince of Lost Places. The novel is told largely through Martha's consciousness, although there are some slightly disconnected passages of third-person narration that disrupt the centrality of her character, and left this reader with the slight impression that the author hadn't quite made up her mind as to who should really tell this story.

A sequence of events ensues, as Martha absconds with her son from their home, her husband and her psychiatric treatment to take up residence in an isolated cave on the Mexican border, away from civilisation, although with as many of the trappings of civilisation as can be crammed into a family car. The cave and its environs become the main scenes of the novel, as the relationship between Martha and her son is mapped out and elaborated, only to be interrupted by the arrival of Andrew, a backpacker apparently himself on the run from civilisation and a disastrous relationship. Oh, and there's a detective tracking her, too.

Somewhat predictably Martha and Andrew get together, and the Edenic possibilities are only destroyed by the arrival of Martha's husband. The revelation he brings does constitute a shocking twist to the novel, but its shock value resides partly in the fact that everything else that has happened so far is either so conventional or so shadily sketched that the reader is left wondering whether anything has been missed out.

Such a cursory run through the novel's plot doesn't quite do justice to Hepinstall's writing, which is on the whole lucid and controlled, and can be effective in conveying emotion and, occasionally, in narrating action. Here's Martha in the cave with her son:

"It took several attempts to learn how to build a fire in the cave, one that wasn't so smoky as to choke us. Within a few days I discovered the benefits of cactus flesh, the soapy properties of yucca roots, the resilience of basket grass. I worked by trial and error, having at my disposal only one guidebook and an old man's advice. I had something else, I discovered -- my mother's feel for nature, a close-to-the-earth practicality I'd never before seen in myself. And I was proud. How could anyone this resourceful be judged insane?"

Quite apart from exemplifying Martha's tiresome "me--me--me", there are so many bedrock myths of American culture embedded in this passage (and, I think, in the novel as a whole) that a little unpacking is necessary. If the literary myth of the territory starts with Huck Finn, there's also Jack London's "To Build A Fire" here, and everyone's hippy dream of the sixties, Kerouac on his road, Walkabout and Deliverance, elements of post-modern survivalism, garages crammed with bully beef and ammunition for the coming apocalypse, with a dash of craft fairs and evening classes thrown in.

Which is as much as saying that this novel, in trying to tap into the cultural anxiety of a nation facing up to Unabombers and the like, succeeds only in reproducing in rather watered-down forms a manifestation of precisely the terrors it seeks to critique. The janitor who blew up the school was presumably exactly the kind of survivalist Martha tries to become -- after all, he knew how to wire himself to a bomb, although we're given such a vague account of this that, like much else in this novel, it remains shadowy and ultimately unconvincing.

Likewise Martha herself, with her touching separatism that coincides with her "close-to-the-earth practicality", connection and disconnection merrily bouncing off each other as the novel tries to assert its take on an extraordinarily complex cultural moment. In one rather uncomfortable sequence, a group of revellers arrive, potentially threatening with their drunkenness, noise and litter the peaceful lives of Martha, Andrew and the child. Our heroes' lives, in contrast, are just so in tune with nature that Andrew, a chronic whisky-drinker, leaves chocolate bars lying around the riverbank like a demonic tooth fairy, and Martha torches her station wagon and leaves it burning in the middle of the desert. So much for "close-to-the-earth-ness".

Prince of Lost Places allows itself a valuable get-out clause in leaving Martha's sanity in question until the end, and this can just about stand as the novel's main valid critique of American society. The problem here, though, is that Martha herself remains a less than convincing figure, too dependent for her effects on stereotypes of unreliable narrators and unbalanced storytellers to fulfil the job she's been given. The other characters - her son Duncan, husband David and Andrew the interloper -- are all in the end revealed to be something other than what we're lead to believe, and one gets the feeling of being somehow sold short, of vital information unfairly withheld.

Ultimately this novel doesn't achieve the level of intensity it strives for because the scale of events it relates to us is so restricted. When society is pared down to a single dysfunctional nuclear family, the characters making up that family have to be extremely well-delineated in order to effectively perform their symbolic roles. Husband and son here are too thin as characters, too peripheral to Martha's self-indulgent self-righteousness, which in turn becomes ludicrous, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

It's not clear whether the novel intends a feminist critique of psychiatry (elements for such an analysis are here), or of the family, or of security systems in American schools, or of men in general, such is the level of uncertainty that Martha's narrative falls into. All these critiques may be intended, but Prince of Lost Places never quite reaches the mark in relation to any of them.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

A Certain Ratio Return with a Message of Hope on 'ACR Loco'

Inspired by 2019's career-spanning box set, legendary Manchester post-punkers A Certain Ratio return with their first new album in 12 years, ACR Loco.

Books

Oscar Hijuelos' 'Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love' Dances On

Oscar Hijuelos' dizzyingly ambitious foot-tapping family epic, Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love, opened the door for Latinx writers to tell their stories in all their richness.

Music

PM Picks Playlist 2: Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES, SOUNDQ

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES' stunning dream folk, Polish producer SOUNDQ, the indie pop of Pylon Heights, a timely message from Exit Kid, and Natalie McCool's latest alt-pop banger.

Film

'Lost Girls and Love Hotels' and Finding Comfort in Sadness

William Olsson's Lost Girls and Love Hotels finds optimism in its message that life tears us apart and puts us back together again differently.

Music

Bright Eyes' 'Down in the Weeds' Is a Return to Form and a Statement of Hope

Bright Eyes may not technically be emo, but they are transcendently expressive, beatifically melancholic. Down in the Weeds is just the statement of grounding that we need as a respite from the churning chaos around us.

Film

Audrey Hepburn + Rome = Grace, Class, and Beauty

William Wyler's Roman Holiday crosses the postcard genre with a hardy trope: Old World royalty seeks escape from stuffy, ritual-bound, lives for a fling with the modern world, especially with Americans.

Music

Colombia's Simón Mejía Plugs Into the Natural World on 'Mirla'

Bomba Estéreo founder Simón Mejía electrifies nature for a different kind of jungle music on his debut solo album, Mirla.

Music

The Flaming Lips Reimagine Tom Petty's Life in Oklahoma on 'American Head'

The Flaming Lips' American Head is a trip, a journey to the past that one doesn't want to return to but never wants to forget.

Music

Tim Bowness of No-Man Discusses Thematic Ambition Amongst Social Division

With the release of his seventh solo album, Late Night Laments, Tim Bowness explores global tensions and considers how musicians can best foster mutual understanding in times of social unrest.

Music

Angel Olsen Creates a 'Whole New Mess'

No one would call Angel Olsen's Whole New Mess a pretty album. It's much too stark. But there's something riveting about the way Olsen coos to herself that's soft and comforting.

Film

What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .

Music

Masma Dream World Go Global and Trippy on "Sundown Forest" (premiere)

Dancer, healer, musician Devi Mambouka shares the trippy "Sundown Forest", which takes listeners deep into the subconscious and onto a healing path.

Music

Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" Is an Ode for Unity in Troubling Times (premiere)

Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" is a gentle, prayerful tune that depicts the heart of their upcoming album, Crucible.

Music

'What a Fantastic Death Abyss': David Bowie's 'Outside' at 25

David Bowie's Outside signaled the end of him as a slick pop star and his reintroduction as a ragged-edged arty agitator.

Music

Dream Folk's Wolf & Moon Awaken the Senses with "Eyes Closed" (premiere)

Berlin's Wolf & Moon are an indie folk duo with a dream pop streak. "Eyes Closed" highlights this aspect as the act create a deep sense of atmosphere and mood with the most minimal of tools.

Television

Ranking the Seasons of 'The Wire'

Years after its conclusion, The Wire continues to top best-of-TV lists. With each season's unique story arc, each viewer is likely to have favorites.

Film

Paul Reni's Silent Film 'The Man Who Laughs' Is Serious Cinema

There's so much tragedy present, so many skullduggeries afoot, and so many cruel and vindictive characters in attendance that a sad and heartbreaking ending seems to be an obvious given in Paul Reni's silent film, The Man Who Laughs.

Music

The Grahams Tell Their Daughter "Don't Give Your Heart Away" (premiere)

The Grahams' sweet-sounding "Don't Give Your Heart Away" is rooted in struggle, inspired by the couples' complicated journey leading up to their daughter's birth.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.