February 11th, 2012


A Twisted Ladder

One of the things that struck me as I was reading A Twisted Ladder, Rhodi Hawk's impressive, genre-defying debut novel, is how amazing and rare it is for an author to perfectly capture her setting almost entirely through the way her characters talk. Hawk's writing is so lush and authentic you can practically feel the New Orleans humidity seeping through the page, and though there are plenty of descriptions of plant-choked bayous and Magazine Street settings, it's the characters themselves, and Hawk's amazing ear for authentic dialogue, that plants you squarely in Louisiana's gulf country.

A Twisted Ladder is as much a multigenerational family story as it is a supernaturally tinged thriller, focusing mainly on Madeleine LeBlanc, a psychologist who focuses on extreme mental illness, and her schizophrenic father, who's known around town as Daddy Blank. Interwoven in their story are frequent dips into the past to shine a light on the life of Madeleine's complex, manipulative, and extremely hard to like great-grandmother Chloe. During those visits into history we learn that Madeleine's ancestry is something a bit more than average. Her bloodline has certain abilities, not the least of which is the power to telepathically control the actions of other people, a trait that's mysteriously shared by Madeleine's childhood friend Zenon, who has started using his abilities to kill. Zenon has also developed a dangerous fascination with Madeleine, encouraged by her still-living great-grandmother Chloe.

But that's not all that makes Madeleine's kin special. They also have a special relationship with mischievous, amoral spirits known as river devils, and it's here that Hawk's imagination really takes off. In a lesser writer's hands these creatures might have been represented as pure evil, as corrupting or deadly forces to be fought against, and though Madeleine is hardly happy to have them around, they're simultaneously more complex and more simple than that. They revel in chaos, but not because they're evil; they're simply forces of nature. You can either fight them, which is a losing proposition, or come to terms with them and their presence. As someone who's read his fair share of horror novels where nature spirits are presented as deadly antagonists, this comes as a welcome breath of fresh air.

The novel is lengthier than your average thriller, but it moves at a steady clip and the characters hold your interest throughout. It slows down a bit toward the end with some courtroom scenes--there's a reason the villain rarely makes it to trial in thrillers--but it's not a fatal flaw, and the novel ends strongly, if not with complete resolution. Which I suppose is one of the reasons I can't wait to read the sequel, A Tangled Bridge, due out next year.

Hawk is, for some reason, still an undiscovered author for many readers. I recommend getting in on the ground floor with A Twisted Ladder. You can thank me later.