The Gates of Evangeline by Hester Young
The Gates of Evangeline (2015) by Hester Young is a domestic thriller set in Louisiana. I’m reviewing it here because it has a supernatural element: Charlotte, the main character, who goes by Charlie, starts having dreams or visitations from children. At least one of the children is dead; others are, or were, in danger. These visitations lead Charlie, whose young son died suddenly, to the plantation house called Evangeline, and the thirty-year-old mystery of the disappearance of two-year-old Gabriel Deveau.
The Gates of Evangeline is Young’s first novel. I made a mistake when I started it; some pages clung together and I started with Chapter One instead of the Prologue. The opening paragraphs of Chapter One are gripping and heart-rending, as the bereaved Charlie struggles to finally take the child seat, which she no longer needs, out of the back seat of her car. I was enthralled. After I finished the book, I realized there was a prologue and so I read it. It starts with one of the dream/visitations. It would not have been a deal-breaker if I’d read it first, but the first chapter has a lot more power, and the prologue undercuts that power.
The book is a decent thriller. Charlie, who works as a writer at Sophisticate Magazine (think Cosmopolitan), realizes her job is in jeopardy after a new company buys the periodical. She takes a job with her old publisher, who specializes in true crime, and who wants a retrospective on the sensational case of thirty years ago: the apparent kidnapping and disappearance of Gabriel Deveau from the Deveau’s historic plantation house. Gabriel’s older twin sisters, now in their forties, have agreed to let a book be written, but they are keeping that fact a secret from their mother.
The surviving Deveau family is drawn in broad strokes: the emotionally distant oldest son, now CEO; the self-centered and shallow twin sisters, one married, one not, who were sixteen when their younger brother disappeared; and like a black hole in the heart of the story, Hester, the mother and matriarch. Charlie also meets most of the help, a local police detective, and a handsome landscaper who has been commissioned to re-create the house’s gardens. These are the characters we spend more time with, and they are more detailed. Charlie, with the help of her dreams and the detective, begins to tug on the threads of secrets that twine around the Deveau family, and by doing so she puts herself at risk.
Young is great on atmosphere. She is also good at creating in Charlie, a northeasterner (specifically a New Yorker), a fish-out-of-water character. The mystery here is good, and it is interesting to watch rational Charlie struggle to make sense of her gift. Charlie meets a woman in town whose child has died. Charlie is an atheist, the other woman an observant Christian. In one of the nice themes in The Gates of Evangeline, Charlie comes to see that faith does not protect you from the pain life inflicts; it provides strength so you can endure. Throughout the book, Charlie questions the nature of faith… all kinds of faith, even faith in her own visions.
I had a few problems with the story. Charlie is a character who leaps to conclusions and they’re usually wrong. In a book like this, the main character must misconstrue some clues if the story is going to work; I think Charlie simply exceeded the threshold of wrong conclusions. When it is about her psychic gift, I have no trouble; but Charlie, who tells us more than once that she can’t believe she read a situation so wrong, never takes that into account, never considers more than one interpretation, I got very peeved with her.
Evangeline’s slave history is glossed over here, and that created a couple of awkward moments for me. Charlie is given a “guest house,” one of the made-over slave cottages. She comments herself that making over the cottages in bland bed-and-breakfast florals is silly at least. Much later, she locates one of aged black servants and brings her to Evangeline for a visit.
When Danielle sees the remodeled cottages, she is scornful. “No character,” she pronounces.
This seems like a lukewarm and awkward response to the former slave quarters and it jarred me out of the story.
As I mentioned, the opening chapter is emotionally powerful, and the beginning of The Gates of Evangeline, if you accidentally skip the prologue, is deep and wrenching, as we travel with Charlie through the numbness of grief and guilt. There is a marked change in tone when Charlie gets to Louisiana and becomes an investigative journalist. The point of the prologue seems to be to say, “Hang in there through the first thirty pages, this really is a thriller!” but it is those opening pages that promise a depth and vulnerability to Charlie that made me want to follow her to this plantation house.
The atmosphere and Charlie’s struggle to fit into what is, in many ways, a completely different culture, and the way she learns to manage her gift, kept me turning pages. The Gates of Evangeline is a solid thriller with great moments, and it takes Charlie’s psychic gift seriously without making it a deus ex machina. I like Young’s prose and I think she took a stab at something new here. The second Charlie Cates book, The Shimmering Road, is due out in February 2017.
Your experience with/without the prologue is really interesting and probably instructive to someone (such as you) who studies the craft of writing.