Iris Dunleavy is an abolitionist married to a slaveholder, a sane woman committed to an insane asylum, a married woman falling in love with another man.
Hepinstall’s latest novel (Prince of Lost Places, 2003, etc.) refracts the Civil War through the lenses of parallel conflicts: husbands and wives, fathers and sons, doctors and patients. Given rich psychological dimensions, each character strives to negotiate the lines balancing desire and control, power and compassion. The lines converge within the character of Iris, who longs for adventure. She has lived a comfortable, secure girlhood, and boys are lined up wanting to marry her. But all those boys are too familiar, so when Robert Dunleavy, plantation owner and slaveholder, comes to town, Iris is enthralled. Despite her father’s misgivings, Iris marries Robert and enters married life happily—until she discovers the ugly underbelly of slavery. After embarrassing Robert, Iris is committed to Sanibel Asylum, populated with souls disturbed by the sheer difficulty of living. Along the way, three men enter Iris’ life. Dr. Cowell hides his desire for power under the veneer of the consummate medical professional. Proud of his research linking the suffragette movement to increasing numbers of women committed to insane asylums, Cowell despairs of reforming Iris into a proper, submissive wife. Or perhaps his feelings run in a less-professional vein? Cowell’s son, Wendell, on the cusp of adulthood, is just beginning to learn about the roles society imposes on men and women. Troubled by his memories of a past patient, Wendell is drawn to Iris, yet he, too, struggles to understand his own desires. And, finally, there is Ambrose Weller, a darkly handsome Confederate soldier haunted by mysterious memories. What can heal him? Cowell’s therapies? Or Iris’ love?
A fine novel embroidered with rich imagery.