The Absence of Nectar
It’s the rare novel written by an adult that can articulate a child’s point of view of the world in convincing fashion. Off the top of my head, I can think of books like To Kill a Mockingbird and A High Wind in Jamaica, to name two. I would add Kathy Hepinstall’s second novel, The Absence of Nectar, the story of a twelve-year-old girl who’s convinced that her new stepfather is trying to kill her.
Eleven-year-old Alice Fendar hasn’t liked creepy Simon Jester since he came into her family’s life. He’s always ominously spouting Bible verses to support his notion that love requires sacrifice, and the story he tells of how his first wife and little boy died strikes Alice as untrue. Her brother Boone tries very hard to live the gospel message of love and acceptance toward Simon, but it grows increasingly difficult, especially after Simon destroys the boy’s prize butterfly collection – just another “sacrifice” he’s supposed to offer up. Their mom Meg ignores the uneasy undercurrents running in the family; she’s just relieved to have a man in her life again. Simon’s insistence that Meg get pregnant, and her failure to do so, make her frantic to please this abusive monster, and the tension grows too great for even her. Things come to a head: the kids defy Simon, he plans his revenge, and finally – finally! – their mother tells them, “Run.”
One of the best things this book has going for it is that nebulous concept, the author’s “voice.” Hepinstall’s is strong and unmistakable. She writes convincingly as an adult recalling the horror of a terrible episode in a pretty rough childhood. It’s not just a grown-up telling a story about a child, it’s an adult saying, “This is what happened to me. These were my thoughts, this is how I felt.” She’s able to put her audience not just on the scene but right inside Alice’s head too, so that the reader doesn’t merely take in the events but takes part in them.
You also get to know all the characters pretty well. Alice is an engaging, curious, and independent child. Because of their mother’s depression, Alice and Boone have had to tend for themselves for some time; Boone is dreamy and obsessed with the story of a local celebrity, Persley Snow. Persley was convicted of poisoning her parents and has been relegated to a prison hospital, but she keeps escaping and has developed a cult following in the area. Boone sends her letters with the news that Jesus loves and forgives her. The more pragmatic Alice isn’t so sure about that; as a matter of fact, she comes to doubt in the very existence of God. The reader comes to know Meg more by absence than by her presence – there’s so much that she doesn’t do that she should. As for Simon, he’s the epitome of creepy. It was so easy to understand how Alice saw right through him that I wondered why Meg didn’t.
The second half of the book involves some truly Dickensian coincidence that left me a little bit disappointed – my, my, my, didn’t all those story threads just meet up and blend together so neatly? But the writing was so good that I almost didn’t care about that.
If you’re looking for a real change of pace and enjoy the occasional foray into suspense, I can recommend this book. If I were doing a Hollywood-style pitch, I’d describe it as Harper Lee meets Dean Koontz, a child’s view of a terrifying series of events.