“The boat zips down the bayou at what feels like a dangerously high speed.”
Charlotte “Charlie” Cates, a journalist from New York City, is in an airboat on a Louisiana swamp, and the ride is wild.
“We travel through water that rapidly narrows and becomes more mucky. Then the waterway flares out, and soon it’s no longer clear where the shore ends and the water begins. Trees rise up out of green clumps that may be land or floating plants.”
The driver of the boat says something about the swamp’s beauty, and Charlie replies that it’s nice, but what she’s thinking is “the truth is I can’t see these swamps as anything but a horrible place to die.”
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Readers of The Gates of Evangeline may want to strap on their metaphorical life jackets for the wild and exhilarating ride that is this startling debut novel by Hester Young.
The narrator, Charlie, is a little obsessed with death, and in fact, that’s why she’s in Louisiana. She has had a dream, a vision, of a little boy named Jo-Jo in a boat on a swamp asking for her help.
The dream comes on the heels of a former colleague asking if she’d be interested in writing a true-crime book about a little boy from a rich, plantation-owning family in Louisiana who went missing years before and whose murder was never solved.
Charlie makes the connection between her dream and this reality, and she decides to head South to try to solve the mystery.
And why the heck not? Charlie is ready for a change in her life. The women’s magazine she has been working for has just been bought by a media group and it looks like she’ll probably lose her job. She’s also recently divorced and still reeling from an enormous personal loss: the death of her 4-year-old son.
And to make things more complicated, she’s been having these visions of children in peril, and these visions have turned out to be true. When she tells her grandmother, who raised her, about what she has seen, she learns that her grandmother once had similar “creepy dreams.”
In Louisiana, things immediately get complicated. Charlie is living on the plantation as a guest of the dead boy’s twin sisters, who are now in their 40s and who have invited her there to write a complete history of their family.
But the Devau family has many dark secrets. The dying matriarch, Hettie, has been told that Charlie is writing a book about plantation homes, and Charlie is expected to keep secret her true work. Their brother, Andre, who runs the family’s hotel business, appears to be a brooding alcoholic and an unhappy, closeted gay man.
Charlie slowly eases into a world with a cast of odd and compelling characters, including a handsome landscaper from Texas who has deep secrets of his own and a local policeman with his own child in peril.
Dreamy, steamy, scary, sometimes deliberately confusing and always thoroughly entertaining, The Gates of Evangeline is an unusual and delightful Southern gothic-meets-romance-meets-thriller concoction.
Young takes readers on a their own wild ride but is thoroughly in control of her face-paced, plot-twisted story. Charlie is a richly drawn protagonist. Although she has supernatural visions, she often misses the obvious right before her eyes. Her thoughts can vary wildly from one page to the next: Is the handsome landscaper a possible wonderful new boyfriend, or could he be a killer?
The novel’s themes include moral issues related to adultery and religion, among others, all presented in authentic ways as the characters grapple with their desires and hopes.
And while the novel deals with the supernatural, the characters are down-to-earth and believable. Perhaps this is because Young decided to write what she knows. In an interview with Shelf Awareness, an online newsletter, in July, the author, who lives in New Jersey, was asked about the origins of the novel, and says that it started with dreams.
“I chose Louisiana because of a dream I had...I was sitting in a boat in a swamp with a little boy who told me how he died...I felt sure I had been in Louisiana.” She also notes that her own grandmother had a recurring nightmare that her son, Bobby, would fall from a window and die — a tragic event that actually came to pass.
In the interview she says, “[Her grandmother] spoke at length about Bobby, her premonitory dreams of his fatal fall from a window, and the ghostly visitation she received after his death. I had experienced some premonitions myself at that point and was surprised that my skeptical grandmother understood.”
This book is the first in a series of three with Charlie as the central character, and while the next installments won’t take place in the South, according to the author, they are bound to share many of the characteristics of this thoroughly original and smart read.
Readers may not be heading to a swamp with the next novel, but I’m guessing they will want to keep that metaphorical life jacket on.
The Gates of Evangeline
by Hester Young
G.P. Putnam’s Sons, $26.95