UNDER THE HOUSE by Leslie Hall Pinder
Kirkus Star


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Part family-gothic, part offbeat coming-of-age drama, this Canadian first novel--by a Vancouver attorney--may be uncertainly shaped, but it's full of memorable vignettes and striking characters. In 175 dense, episodic pages, Pinder tries to pack in all the gnarled psychopathology of the Rathbones, a rich Saskatchewan farm-family, from 1915 to 1958 (plus a 1986 prologue). The clan patriarch is aggressive, fierce S.D., catered to by meek wife Kathryn. The children are brutal son Stanley (eager to imitate S.D.), enigmatic daughter Isabel (who leaves home early, forever), stammering Clarence, and--youngest by far--Maude, the novel's initial heroine. Always considered and feeling ""odd,"" Maude moves to Vancouver, marries, but returns home once, in 1946--when S.D. announces his Last Will and Testament, then promptly rips it up after being bullied by Stanley (who casts ugly doubts on Maude's true parentage). Thereafter, however, the focus shifts primarily to Stanley's stepdaughter Evelyn--who is six, illegitimate, already a victim, when her alcoholic mother Muriel marries into the Rathbone family in 1948. Nursing fantasies of her real father, jealous of a new baby sister, Evelyn grows up rebellious, secretive, difficult--and is ultimately sent away to school in Winnipeg. But she returns to the Rathbone manse for S.D.'s funeral in 1958; Maude, now widowed, returns too. So these two outcasts now meet for the first time; sympathetic sparks fly; soon Evelyn, defying the apoplectic Stanley, has moved in with Aunts Maude and Isabel in Vancouver. And when Stanley publicly accuses Maude of kidnapping, the result is a trial--which brings all the family secrets into the open. In concept, the double-portrait culminating in a Maude-and-Evelyn coalition is splendid. As executed, however, it's lopsided and ragged--especially since Pinder tries to squeeze in Stanley's viewpoint too. So, at the close, with heavy emphasis on gothic revelations (the book's least distinctive aspect), we're left unsatisfied--knowing more than we'd like about some things, not nearly enough about others. Nonetheless, at its best--in the complex glimpses of idiosyncratic, flinty women--this is crisply poetic, powerful fiction reminiscent of Louise Erdrich's The Beet Queen (One mesmerizing vignette, funny and faintly erotic: closed-off teen-ager Evelyn opens up--thanks to sherry, paddy cake, and a sympathetic teacher.) And, despite some self-consciousness in her metaphor-laden imagery, Pinder clearly registers as a writer with a future.

Pub Date: April 21st, 1988
Publisher: Random House