All is not well in the Arkwright family. In 1962, recently divorced Althea has moved with her three children—Lars, Nell and Lottie—from Chicago to London, the first stop on a pilgrimage to Israel. Unemployed and plagued by unpredictable moods, Althea is more focused on composing a narrative poem about the life of St. Paul than caring for her children. But she’s also committed to nurturing their creative spirits, including dedicating some of the family’s limited funds to pay for 9-year-old Lottie’s piano lessons with Master Rory, a talented 24-year-old concert pianist. Lottie is a gifted musician, but Rory’s interest in her goes beyond teaching her scales. He abuses her sexually, exploiting her mother’s trust in him and manipulating Lottie so that she says nothing of his crimes. As Althea’s condition deteriorates, Rory insinuates himself into the family, buying them food and inviting them to his country estate. But when Rory moves to assume guardianship of the Arkwright children, Lottie takes matters into her own hands. In her latest novel, Gates (Praying for Rain, 2014) offers a glimpse into the psyche of an abused child, from her feelings of shame and fear to her affection for her abuser and desire to please him. As a result, Lottie is by turns heartbreaking and charming. She’s still young enough to trust in her mother’s addled fantasies of speaking to God but old enough to suspect that there is something seriously wrong with her family, and especially with Rory’s unhealthy fixation on her. Gates also skillfully shows how abuse can go unnoticed, even by those closest to the victim, as Lottie’s family sees Rory as a savior, not a deviant. Midcentury London comes to life through period details (Beatles songs on the radio, Little Noddy on the “telly”) as well as Lottie’s sometimes-incongruous cockney accent. Even characters who behave badly are sympathetic at times, including Althea and even Rory, particularly when his own history of abuse is revealed. But the smart, funny and wounded Lottie remains the story’s heart and soul.
A troubling but perhaps necessary portrait of abuse handled with grace and sensitivity.