worshipful perceptions and our own adult perceptions
of him. He is sitting in his car, waiting for Kate to leave school.
As he has taught her to do, she lingers behind the others so
that she can be the last to leave the building, thereby standing
out from the crowd:
It means I have to keep him waiting
too, but he doesn't mind a bit. He parks the car next to where
the sixth formers come out, stalking past on legs way to long
for skirts that haven't fitted them since the fourth year. Well,
you can imagine what they look like. Yet he doesn't complain--or
look away--ever. He just stares and stares, never takes his eyes
off them. He says it's a God-given opportunity to spot souls.
Naturally, we expect Evans to bring Kate from
innocence into experience, to close the gap between her and the
reader's perceptions of her father. And Evans gives us one more
horrific detail that seems to guarantee horrific revelations
about her father and Kate's own past: one of Kate's legs is shorter
than the other, but she's not allowed to ask why--or even to
look at it, for that matter: "Actually, we prefer not to
talk about it. He doesn't like it. And why should he,
when he can't bear anything not to be perfect, least of all me?"
The problem for Kate, at least initially,
is that she's such a good understudy that it's hard to make us
sympathetic with her, even when she reveals how difficult it
can be to keep her father happy (which entails hiding her flaws
well enough to keep him from complaining). But as Evans slowly
reveals to us, Kate is simply an abused child, and it's her moments
of confessed vulnerability--more than her ironically naïve
musings--that make us excuse her actions. At heart, of course,
it's self-loathing that drives her father to overcompensating
religion, and that he's driven his own daughter into a fragile
inner hell is painful to read, indeed.
In fact, Kate's not as naïve as she first
leads us to believe in the book's opening pages, and what she
most wants, it seems, is for somebody to take her place--to deflect
her father's attention and the anger that follows when mistakes
are observed ("attention shared is attention halved").
Someone, in fact, like the new girl in school--a nice, worshipful
girl to be offered up like a sacrifice to an angry god.
The skill with which Evans lays out her clues
and twists Kate's voice to show her profound underlying vulnerabilities
is astonishing: it's patient, intelligent and even fugue-like
in its subtle complexities. It's impossible to anticipate where
Evans will take the plot, although the basic images and thematic
issues are laid openly before us--which is a stunning achievement
Freezing, newly published in paperback by Soho Press,
makes for decidedly less intense reading. Where First Fruits
is quietly, unpredictably unnerving, Freezing is comparatively
casual and even funny at times, although its central storyline
concerns the corpse of an unidentified woman and the setting
is a morgue. (Hey, when I said it's funny, I didn't mean P.G.
Wodehouse-funny.) There's a morbid bite to Evans's nicely understated
black comedy, as we see when the narrator--Stuart, the morgue's
twenty-eight-year-old photographer--describes his mother's death:
"When I was three she was knocked over by a bus, not watching
where she was going, apparently. Mary remembers her. She says
she always did have difficulty concentrating."
The two novels are not completely dissimilar:
like First Fruits, Freezing has a dysfunctional
family at its center, along with a morally compromised father.
But Stuart is no Kate. His fevered fascinations are directed
not at his father but at that unidentified corpse in the morgue,
and he sees himself (correctly, as it turns out) as a chivalrous
knight rather than a devious sinner.
a good, entertaining novel, but First Fruits is in another
class altogether, and fans of psychological thrillers should
put it at the top of this season's must-read list.