Wicked stepfather threatens the lives of an unbearably wise prepubescent girl and her saintly brother: a second novel by Hepinstall that, like her first (The House of Gentle Men, 2000), displays a disquieting view of virile manhood.
After a black-haired stranger named Simon saves divorced and somewhat depressed Meg Fendar from drowning, Meg and her son Boone are both thrilled to have him enter their lives. Weak, dependent Meg, who has barely functioned since her husband deserted the family for another woman, responds unquestioningly to Simon’s advances. Deeply religious and emotionally open, Boone is touched by Simon’s tragic tale about his wife and child's accidental drowning. Not Boone’s younger sister Alice, the narrator; she immediately distrusts Simon’s story and suspects that his slimy charms mask rage and paranoia. But Alice is helpless to prevent Simon’s deepening involvement with Meg, who’s desperate to hang on to him despite his increasingly erratic behavior. They marry, and once Meg is pregnant Simon’s hostility toward her children increases. Alice and Boone begin to suspect that he wants them dead, but Meg remains passive, turning a blind eye until tensions in the household escalate into violence. Meanwhile, Boone, who believes good exists in everyone, has been corresponding with a teenaged girl imprisoned for poisoning her parents. When she shows up unexpectedly, Simon’s secret past becomes clear. The kids attempt escape through a series of dark adventures that obviously allude to Huckleberry Finn. Hepinstall’s real inspiration, however, is nothing so morally complex as Twain’s novel but rather the fairy tales in which good is clearly distinct from evil. From Simon to policemen and random strangers, her male characters are either pathetically weak or dangerously powerful, and even 14-year-old Boone is a relative wimp compared to his sister and criminal girlfriend.
A tone of hysteria rules this dank, claustrophobic story.