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In this arresting first novel, an elderly eccentric in rural 1960's Louisiana, her mild, feckless ""nephew"" of mysterious origins, and a lusty, restless wife--all blank-eyed with need and greed--unwittingly conspire to prey upon innocence. Sole survivor of the Patout family, aged Clothilde, who has lived in her plantation mansion (""The Oaks"") for years, separated from sister Janice by a wall dividing the house in two, decides, after Janice's death, to contact her long-lost nephew (obviously, he's more than that), Patout Minville, for a little help in running the place. Patout, a fumbling failure, is devoted to ambitious, heavily loving, snappish wife Sophie, who's convinced that the mansion and money will be theirs as soon as Clothilde packs it in. Also arriving at The Oaks as helper-on-hire is the Frenchwoman Francoise, victim of a mournful marriage, who will be an objective observer of the tangle of ancient custom, poisonous leafings of old feuds, and the sodden legacy of slavery (the black gardener Willie views the surviving Patout with an affectionate tolerance, at the cost of a freestanding ego). Watching all that goes on is six-year-old Cato, a nervous, edgy little boy, overstimulated by the emotive overload from mother Sophie. The passions of all will find their prey like night creatures on the prowl: Clothilde's love for Cato and her own renewal, framed within her old habits of recriminations and punishing penury, come to naught; Sophie plays with fire in a sexual indulgence; a child trembles in fear and dread; Patout, boozy with fantasy happiness, is the father forever absent. At the last, the child will clang shut his own prison door. The author has paced this richly, insinuatingly ambient, regional tale with accessible characters--whose self-entrapment is lethal with the ancient luxuriant miasma of an old mansion. A firmly crafted, sage, and affecting novel by a writer of great promise.

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 1988
Publisher: Viking