Following the tragic accidental death of her young son, writer and social worker Renata Burgess enters a state of anguish and loss so deep that she touches upon another state of reality, a frightening alternate world peopled by the ghosts of bereaved mothers past. It's a journey full of pain and hope--echoing back through the ages--which will lead to madness or the partial healing of Renata's grief-stricken soul. One of the most resonant, moving novels of recent years, this is a near-masterpiece.
-- Ronnie Wright, Darlington Northern Echo, England
Every weekday evening during the time I spent in Gdansk, Poland, I was a subject in an experiment conducted by fear. My flat was in a part of town that was accurately nicknamed "the place where the knives fly." Having got off the tram, there was one long road near the end of which I lived. Imagine my joy at navigating quickly a pavement that was at best a rink of stalagmites and slush. And I had to do so looking confident. At every step I expected someone to jump out of a driveway or from behind a bush.
I mention this because I experienced a similar reaction when reading the early sections of Black River by Melanie Tem (Headline, £ 17.99). The opening is so charged and haunted that I hardly dared anticipate what might be ploughing into the side of my head on the next page. The Very Bad Thing happens early. Having set the main character up as a successful working woman with a loving family, Tem crucifies Renata's good luck by having their nine-year-old adopted son hang himself in his bedroom. Renata quickly learns the following: "Happiness was a trick of mirrors and scarves."
Renata's fast slide into depression is harrowingly described. Everything in her life is affected by her son's suicide, and she confirms "Ian is dead" so many times that the sentence takes on both the meaninglessness and the potency of a mantra. If it's painful to watch a bereaved mother going about her normal duties, it's especially painful to watch her, for example, try to dispose of her son's belongings: "Now she thought of Ian's glasses, so tiny they fit in the palm of her hand, and couldn't bring herself to imagine touching them, let alone deciding whether to keep them or throw them away She thought of his collection of black-and-white 'generic bears'... She thought of his socks." So powerful is her grief that she discovers she is linked to other mothers who have lost children in the past. In hallucinatory dream states she travels down a bloody tunnel to learn these women's stories.
Healing becomes the sole purpose in Renata's life. She attends support groups, and what surprised me was the number of people who do not offer what one might think to be the usual platitudes. They make it clear that the pain will not go away and Renata is disgusted with her family for supposedly healing as fast as they have. Nobody knows what she is going through, not even her best friend, who, having traveled a long distance to comfort her, insensitively announces at the shop: "Do they have postcards here? I want to send the kids a postcard of Denver." Renata re-examines her relationships with her husband and with her adopted daughter, who is too young not to need her mother, but too proud to ask for help.
Perhaps the central section of the book is too long and repetitive, but then again, and more charitably the author might argue that grieving is long and repetitive, and nothing changes for a very long time. Even in the dream world of what is described as "psychedelic grief" there are no answers:
"Do you know why my son killed himself?"
"No one knows."
"Did he mean to die? Did he understand that death is forever? Can you understand that when you're nine years old?"
"You'll never know."
Sudden breakthroughs are not apparent. When it seems that Renata might one day start to feel better, the strongest emotion she then experiences is guilt. At one point she asks: "...is it just grief doing bizarre things to my head? Or does grief open up your mind to things that are real but we don't perceive most of the time? Is it real in some way I never knew about before?" She has entered a realm in which a word is not even a placebo. No words will soothe away the death of a child, and Renata searches for hope as she walks a very cold road, not knowing at any moment what lies in wait.
-- David Mathew, The Word and the Placebo, Interzone 130, April 1998
This isn't a book for the emotionally faint-hearted. It isn't a thriller...Quite possibly, it isn't even fiction. Instead, it's a voyage through staggeringly awful pain, completely introverted and one-sided, to the exclusion of pretty much anything apart from the dark interior life of the central character.
It's a chronicle of the complete turmoil that follows the death of a beloved child, of sinking into agony so deep that reality disappears and all that's left is a dream state of pain. Not that nothing happens. But it is hard to tell if these events really occur or if they're simply creations of the heroine's mind: other characters, from other times, suffering equal loss, reliving their agony forever.
In the same way that DH Lawrence's narrative is subverted by the intricacies of love so this book is given over to the intricacies of grief. I'm not sure how anyone could have written this without having experienced it. If Melanie Tem has been through something like this and survived to write about it, then she must have quite extraordinary resilience. If she has not experienced it, then the power of her imagination and writing is even more extraordinary. You can't stand back from this torrent of emotion; you're swept along with it into the darkness. It's fascinating, overwhelming, compelling, terrible, and, in the end... Well, get there yourself, if you can bear it, and see.
Melanie Tem is one hell of a writer.
-- Ruth Pracy, SFX, November 1997
Note: The hardcover edition of Black River made the number four spot on the South African bestseller list, according to the Sunday Times South Africa.
Melanie Tem introduces another close-knit family of far-from mainstream Americans in Desmodus, and she too mixes mundane life with the truly outre, but the feel of this book is quite different: rough-talking contemporary horror, combined with the scientific fascination of a strange lifeform that could be at home on some alien planet, or in the most distant reaches of our own. In other words, we're not talking standard vampire novel here.
Joel the narrator is a member of the Desmodus branch of the family, with a summer home up north and a winter place down south, each an isolated site having little contact with normal humans--or perhaps I should just say humans in general, since the Desmodus and their various kin worldwide are sentient, more or less bipedal, but far from human (though with the right clothes, they can pass). Forget all the usual Transylvanian trappings; these vampires have batlike wings, rather than cloaks, and much of their physical, cultural, and social characteristics are derived from the world of true bats (fruit eaters as well as blood suckers).
The most immediately striking aspect of Joel Desmodus's family is the dominance of females --"women," in his parlance, just as he and the other males are "men." Joel is a thoughtful, somewhat nebbishy fellow, much given to pondering the nature of his kind. Even when he's itchy to get on the road south, as winter approaches, he will stop to make such observations as this:
"Everywhere--horizontally across this community and others I knew anything about, vertically down through the generations--were men and boys who could barely make their own way in the world, or who could not, who had to be propped up by women.... [All] of us were damaged some way. Physically frail, mentally weak, morally bankrupt--none of us could be considered whole. I could not, in fact, come up with a single man ... who possessed a fraction of the positive qualities of the average, ordinary woman."
This passage typifies Joel's careful, rather sententious style, which may put off readers eager for flat-out, fast-paced thrills, chills, and splatter. Just be patient, though, and you'll find plenty of creepy, fascinating details in his family life. A good organizer, given to episodes of depression, unusually intelligent for a male of this group, Joel asks himself the questions the reader might like to pose, wondering why both their society and their physiology depend on female hibernation and male migration, and asking, "What ... could possibly be the evolutionary value of our species' stubborn refusal to accept mortality?"
Things aren't always this serious. There's a wonderfully grotesque humor in the males' similarity to standard American couch potatoes, party guys, and flat-out losers. Indeed, nearly every aspect of the Desmodus clan's adaptation to their long-time home in the US has its element of the absurd, especially in comparison to the Euro-dominated, quasi-aristocratic manners of the stereotypical vampire. Next to such types, Joel's family looks more like poor white trash (though the females might argue with such a dismissal).
As for action, yes, you'll get this too, when the southern migration finally gets under way. In one of the book's most horrifying moments, while serving as driver for one of the females' hibernation trucks, Joel finds himself face to face with one of the clan's monstrous Old Women. Later he will get involved in life-threatening crises besetting both his oddly insomniac niece and his young hoodlum nephew. And eventually, those questions he asked about his species and extended family will lead to some nasty answers, uncovered in a long, superbly written passage through the Desmodus clan's very real version of the underworld, for a climax that's at once awesome, scary, perplexing, sad, and deeply enigmatic.
Desmodus may be very different from The Silent Strength of Stones, but Melanie Tem and Nina Kiriki Hoffman do have one notable similarity as writers: they're shaking up their chosen genres with a freshness of vision and an ability to bring the extended family (whether of magic-users or blood-drinkers) directly into the here and now of America at the end of the 20th century.
-- Faren Miller, Locus, December 1995
Could there possibly be a new slant to the vampire legend? Only an author as talented as Denver's Melanie Tem could bring it off. As Tem stated at a recent reading at Arvada's Little Bookshop of Horrors, "I never thought of Desmodus as a vampire novel until other people told me it was."
The novel hypothesizes a parallel evolution in which bats have become human. Through exhaustive research the author has combined the traits of many types of bats to make the Desmodus family believable and unique: the women of this matriarchal clan hibernate; the men migrate; they sleep upside down; they drink blood (and other things, as you will discover); they are primarily nocturnal. Yet they watch football on television, they play rock music and video games.
Middle-aged Joel is dissatisfied with his life but too lethargic to do much about it until he discovers why the males are dominated by the females--and why they have no hope of ever reversing the situation.
-- Mark Graham, Unreal Worlds, Rocky Mountain News, Sun. Jan. 7, 1996.
An entirely different mood suffuses the modern American scenes of Melanie Tem's Revenant, though again this work is not horror in the sense of raw grue or goose bumps. After an introductory chapter strongly recalling the dark eloquence that begins Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House, the bulk of the narrative could be called mainstream tale-spinning (of a very high quality), as Tem explores the various worlds of a number of people whose one trait in common is their intense, obsessive mourning of someone they have lost--not always due to death.
With its contrasting characters, environments, sources and immediate responses to loss, this sequence of story/chapters remains compelling, even though the book's supernatural element scarcely intrudes between Chapter One and the end of Chapter Ten, more than 200 pages later. We know Revenant is a ghost town, perhaps the ultimate ghost town, and we know the characters will eventually make their way to it, and toward some powerful resolution. With that degree of readerly faith, the book's unusual structure works.
And Tem doesn't disappoint. The final meetings, crises, juxtapositions, revenges, escapes, etc., when the entire group of protagonists reaches Revenant and the ghosts they have long sought, is dramatic, profound, and well beyond the reach of most mainstream fiction. Revenant is a meditation on forms of grief--from the most selfish refusals to let go, to the most open-hearted final surrenders--and it is a tale that could not be told without the vivid presences of ghosts.
-- Faren Miller, Locus, November 1994
Ghosts are loved ones you can't let go, says Melanie Tern, and she should know. Her moving novel Revenant (Headline £ 16.99) tells of a place in Colorado where sorrow lives. Here, Mother Grief survives the 'nearly unbelievable centrifugal force of mourning' and summons those who refuse to surrender their dead. If this sounds esoteric, rest assured that Tem has a fine tale to tell. Mourners of all kinds are led to Revenant: a mother brought by her dead children; a wife, bringing the husband she is losing to Alzheimer's; and a deceased father leading his grieving son. All are suffering forms of loss--of youth, life, intellect and innocence--and all need to find a way to live again, or die. Revenant is a testing-ground where you learn to release your ghosts or stay with them forever. Tem's heartfelt, cathartic tale shows how our lives are shaped by the things we lose. Her ghosts are real, her sense of pain tangible, her story the most genuinely haunting I have read for a long time, because it deals in truths.
-- from Time Out, London, August 1994
Melanie Tem has an uncanny knack for probing everyday families, finding their deepest fears and turning them into waking nightmares of real or perceived horror. With Revenant, she addresses the issue of grief and mourning in a metaphorical, often overpowering look at how human beings confront the loss of loved ones.
Revenant is a ghost town nestled in the mountains of Colorado, where the anguish of the town's past has taken on sentient form. This symbolic figure, who calls herself Mother Grief, needs sorrow and despair to sustain herself. Thus, a collection of characters are drawn to the town each suffering from their own loss. In the deserted streets of Revenant, each person has to either come to terms with their sadness and go on living, or else be consumed by it and remain only as fodder for Mother Grief.
Revenant is unorthodox in that it's more a series of interlocking stories than a continuous narrative. There's no main protagonist; each character's tale is given equal time and is completely separate from the others, until they all cross paths in Revenant during the novel's final third. There's no villain or monster either; Mother Grief does not detain or threaten the people who enter the town. Once there, the battle is waged solely between the living and the ghosts of their dead spouses, lovers, siblings or children. The book's strange structure adds a repetition to the stories that could become tiresome, but that's balanced by Tem's haunting, surrealistic prose. Most importantly, she captures the unspeakable ache of grief perfectly. Her characters, from the old woman who's lost her husband to Alzheimer's disease to the young man who longs to reclaim his perverted relationship with his baby sister, are intensely real. Even in their most shameless moments of selfishness or self-pity, we feel the irretrievable sense of loss that permeates their existences. Revenant, especially in its closing scenes, is often profoundly moving. Saying the final goodbye to someone we love is probably the most heartbreaking thing a human being can do. In Revenant, Tem does it with beauty and eloquence.
-- Don Kaye, Fangoria #138
Quite a while ago, I wrote a column about a novel called Making Love, which was about the power of the human mind to produce the reality it wants badly enough, and hence the ability to "make' an object of one's affection. It was from a new series of books put out by a new publisher which is part of the Dell group. The new publishing line is called Abyss, and it specializes in psychological horror.
About the end of school there arrived in my mailbox another novel by one of the authors of Making Love, Melanie Tem. This one is so deep and challenging, yet so accessible, I rushed through it, then found myself turning back and reliving some of the most delicious moments. It's called Revenant.
The word "revenant" means, literally, "come again," and in usage, it means a ghost, or a person who seems to have come from the past, to live in the present. This novel is a giant allegory. ''Revenant'' here is a ghost town in the Colorado Rockies. It isn't just a town which used to be inhabited and now has fallen into abandonment, however. It is a town full of ghosts.
In the style of The Bridge of San Luis Rey, Revenant tells the story of a small group of unrelated individuals who are linked by a single place and event. The characters in the novel have all lost a dearly loved one, usually to death, but in one case to the flight of the beloved and in another, the loved one still lives, but Alzheimer's disease has claimed everything but the body.
Because these various characters loved so desperately, they cling to the departed ones and refuse to allow themselves to move ahead in life, The book brings all of the characters face to face with their beloveds in the ruined streets of Revenant. There they also meet the old woman who is the narrator of the story, and they are confronted with a choice. No dithering is allowed. They either let go, or they move in to stay.
The narrator calls herself Dona--lady. Here in how she describes herself and introduces the characters:
"Even myth does not come near to telling the story of my grief. Even legend does not contain the meaning of my loss. Even metaphor, simile, symbol do not express my pain. I gather others: The widower. The orphan. The mothers whose children were killed, the mother whose child was never born. The wife whose husband is no longer her husband. The father whose son is no longer his son. The lover whose beloved never was what he imagined her to be.
"I wait for them in Revenant. In the hollows of the churches and the jail. In the streets that have held footprints and wheel ruts for centuries. In the cobwebbed corners of the dance hall and the general store.
"I have no need to hear their stories, I am not interested in whom they have lost or how, only that they have lost. But they tell, obsessively, and those who stay in Revenant with me never believe that they have told their stories all she way through.
"Call me Mother Grief. I am the wellspring and nurturer, source of the sorrow of the world."
The first two-thirds of the book sets up the characters and brings them to Revenant. The final third confronts them with each other, and with decision.
I think the most outstanding quality of the book, aside from its ability to show us the horrific face of despair, is the humanity of its subjects. Characters in books are often supernaturally good, right and sympathetic. These people are all flawed. The loathsome Patrick. for example, is so assured in the rightness of what he's been doing that we need to fight the impulse to accept the sin, as well as the sinner.
Fiction is sometimes more true than fact, and this is definitely one of those times. This book shows you not only the minds but the souls of this sad group of people, and some are saved and some are not. And the narrator is among the lost.
Not since Faulkner have I read a writer's work which could set me thinking so many ways and could leave me convinced that I truly know a set of people who are all the children of another's mind. It touched my humanity in a way which has rarely happened before. I don't say things like that lightly.
-- Robert Plyler, Post-Journal, August 13, 1994
The subgenre of lycanthropic fiction has never had a werewolf novel to match the position of Dracula over in the vampire lair. The closest in the ballpark's probably Robert Lewis Stevenson's "The Strange Case of Dr.Jekyll and Mr. Hyde." The strongest imprint's been in film, with Lou Chaney's Larry Talbott from Universal's Wolfman pictures in the 'thirties. Not that that's stopped writers from trying for the furry crown.
Remember H. Warner Munn's The Werewolf of Ponkert, Jessie Kerruish's The Undying Monster, Guy Endore's The Werewolf of Paris? All highly regarded, all largely forgotten. In an arbitrarily chosen modern period starting with Jack Williamson's Darker Than You Think, we've recently seen such interesting attempts as Wilderness by Dennis Danvers, St. Peter's Wolf by Michael Cadnum, Robert R. McCammon's The Wolf's Hour, and Amanda Prantera's Strange Loop. The Cadnum novel is especially notable.
And now here's another werewolf novel demanding considerable attention, Wilding (Abyss, $4.99, 332pp) by Melanie Tem.
After her first novel, Prodigal, Melanie Tem ascended to the top rung of visibility at Dell Abyss books. Then Blood Moon was published nearly invisibly in Great Britain. Now there's Wilding, and I think it's going to get a lot of notice everywhere.
First, it's got all the bells and whistles going for it. Wilding is a perfect title for a lycanthropic dark fantasy, evoking, as it does, all manner of levels of meaning. Then there's the cover by Paul Clift, one of the most attention-getting and attractive of the sometimes all too muddy and toothy Abyss packages.
Second, and more important, Wilding has good writing and a first-rate writer's story-telling sensibility going for it. I'm not about to claim that Wilding is or will be the finest werewolf novel ever written. That's what the test of time is for. But what I will say is that Wilding is one of the top echelon of shapeshifting tales and is certainly one of the most impressive novels of the year.
It's also an act of reassurance. Prodigal got a positive response from the readers and was a wonderful debut. Blood Moon had actually been written long before most of the rest of Tem's published material. So Wilding was the true test of whether the author could beat the old sophomore curse. It certainly does.
Wilding is a multigenerational family saga about a matriarchal clan of werewolves living in contemporary Colorado. They are descended from four shapeshifting sisters who migrated west better than a century ago. The quartet built four massive brick houses in one of the oldest sections of north Denver. Two sisters are now dead, murdered by their siblings, bones stored down in the basements of their houses. The two survivors are Mary and Hannah. Mary's the city wolf. Hannah's the country wolf, spending most of her time with her extended family-pack in the high country of the Colorado mountains. The sisters are immensely patient, jockeying for power, and planning for the moment when one will die, one will triumph, and there will be a lone wolf bitch at the top.
We meet several generations of female werewolves. (Males don't play a role in this variant lupine world. Men are necessary evils for impregnation. Boy babies meet early, fatal fates.) Mary, as I say, is the matriarch. She lives for power and the sustenance and continuance of her clan. Mary's surviving daughter is Ruth, a woman both wise and strong. Ruth's daughter is Lydia, a woman who shies from her heritage, a lonely, estranged woman who does not want to assume her lycanthropic heritage. And Lydia's daughter is Deborah, a fifteen-year-old anorectic who is rebelling against the family with her purple mohawk, her punk persona with the attendant piercings and self-mutilations. Deborah is also pregnant, and at the moment of her family initiation, rebels and flees into Denver's urban street-level wilderness. She learns to kill. She finds a strange friend and ally in the person of a street-denizen named Julian. And always around her, though not always visible to Deborah, are the maneuverings and machinations of her family.
Tem structures this tale as an ensemble piece, so that roughly equal amounts of time and space are allotted to all the four primary characters. This is one of those auctorial risks that succeeds or fails depending upon who in the cast the reader wishes to empathize with the most. I think the risk largely pays off, though I have my own feelings about whom I'd like to have seen a lot more of.
There's a lot of pain included in the emotional loading here, and it's more frequently cold than hot, if one wants to use that particular scale for rating passion. Rather than putting the reader off, I think the net effect is a continual low-level reminder to the reader that these characters are not wholly human. They, by their nature, are partitioned off from the mainstream of human existence.
And that leads to another fascinating aspect of Wilding. Running some risk of being misunderstood, I must observe that this is very much of a woman's novel. I mean that in the sense that the characters, with Julian's minor exception, are female. Their lives as portrayed in Wilding are linked by cycles and biological ritual. Fierce lineal loyalty and family continuance are central to their experience. And blood is not a Big Deal.
How will this affect the audience? Female and male readers, I think, will enjoy Wilding equally. But more women than men will get a little more out of what Tem has wrought. There will be a bonus for readers whose life-experience is slightly closer to the core of the book. And as for guys, well, only the most superficial macho dude will miss the conspicuously lacking car chases.
And all the others will get a few provocative insights to think about.
My only dissatisfactions with Wilding are small concerns. I'm not sure Tem has quite visualized all the geography of her book--but then I live in the neighborhood she delineates too. I also miss context. The background of the werewolves is covered in an early paragraph--I'd like to see a little more of what past has formed this extended family of predators. And then there's the matter of this novel giving a sudden sharp signal at the end that the story isn't over yet. But for that, I guess I should just be patient and wait for the sequel. And maybe when the rest of the shapeshifters' family saga is told, maybe then Dracula will have a solid counterpart over in the lupine den.
-- Edward Bryant, Cemetery Dance, Winter 1993
Melanie Tem is a social worker who deals with abused and neglected children, and this forms the basic theme of this novel. The title suggest a cheap run-of-the-mill horror novel, but it goes far beyond that. Breanne is an unmarried young woman who lives in a love-hate relationship with her father Andy. She adopts an 11-year old boy, Greg, who has already been kicked out by several foster families. People are scared of Greg, strange things happen when he's around, things get broken without him really touching them. Greg likes to fantasize about happenings, and in real adolescent dreams, he sees himself as someone with deadly mental superpowers. This creates at the same time a self-destructive feeling of guilt for him. Greg desperately wants real human contact, but at the same time he rejects it subconsciously, as does Andy. There are no cheap thrills in Blood Moon, no horrible murders, no secondary characters introduced just to be killed off. The suspense is created by the psychological and dangerous dance the three protagonists do around each other, and which threatens to become deadly when Breanne gets pregnant and Greg wants to identify himself with the coming baby. A rather bloody but well handled finale for a stylish psychological horror novel.
-- Eddy C. Bertin, Cerberus (Belgium)
Child endangerment novels possess something of a dubious reputation in contemporary fiction. Why? Well, probably because of the innate element of exploitation rampant in such a genre. Writing about kids in trouble--especially if that trouble is dire, sexual or violent--opens the writer to charges of crass, cynical playing on the reader's worst instincts. It's like writing about rape. Can the writer treat the subject matter fairly and directly without catering to some reader's lust for titillation? Probably not. Twisted reader sensibilities will always outstrip even a jaded writer's desire to shock. So? I'm certainly not suggesting that sincerely motivated writers with only the purest of artistic intentions should abandon some of the strongest themes for reasons of fear, good taste or moral trepidation. Far from that. If intrepid literary explorers with a brain and keen sensibilities don't explore the outer, darker reaches of the human condition, then aspiring contemporary Vandals and Visigoths will eagerly monopolize the keyboards.
All the above is a long-winded way of saying that Melanie Tem's debut novel, Prodigal, is a crackerjack effort, but it's treading desperate, dangerous, treacherous terrain. Stephen King's Pet Sematary and Summer of Night by Dan Simmons both credibly treated the intertwined fears of children, parents, and families. But Tem's novel digs even deeper into the disturbing, layered, complex, collective psyche of a family in deep trouble.
Twelve-year-old Lucy Ann Brill is the protagonist and point of view character of Prodigal. She is the third of seven children. The Brills are a middle-class family with a brood larger than the societal average because they simply love kids. All the adults in this novel love kids to death, and that adds to the scariness.
Interestingly, author Tem has plugged into a genuine social phenomenon of the '90s. American families are getting larger. Speculation has it that modern yuppies, despairing of finding personal worth in material goods, are turning to offspring as an alternate validation. At any rate, the Brills are not exactly the Happy Hollisters or the Brady Bunch. They are a loving, mutually supportive, complexly interrelating clan, but they have problems. Mom and Dad, Carole and Tony, appear to be reasonably responsive and responsible nurturers, but we never find out as much about them as we perhaps would like. Part of this is by necessity, since the focus is all on Lucy. And fifth-grader Lucy's perceptions seem skewed both because of her age and experience, and because she may well see the world from a vastly different angle than the rest of us. Being a healthy, modern family, the Brill family believes in professional help, and so therapists and social workers are de facto members of the extended household.
As the novel opens, Ethan Brill, the oldest child, a difficult, unhappy teenager, has been among the missing for two years. Something suspiciously like Ethan's ghost, however, has been appearing to Lucy and, it would seem, to Mom as well. And then Ethan's body is found, apparently dead of a drug overdose.
Troubles for the Brills deepen. The next oldest child, Rae, well on the way to becoming a rebellious teen, disappears. And a troubling figure who may or may not be her ghost, haunts the house. Lucy, and perhaps Dad, can perceive her. And what about the family's social worker, Jerry Johnston, a sort of sinister Sta-Pufft Marshmallow Man who talks in sensitive therapy-speak? Here is the darkest figure in the story, a man who exemplifies all one's worst fears about the sort of twisted human a family might invite into a position of trust in their life.
Are the Brills having a run of tragic luck? Is the family somehow so dysfunctional that they are crumbling from within, or even destroying themselves? Or is there an outside agency, some malign force preying upon them? In that disturbing dilemma lies the novel's dark heart.
This is a book fraught with ambiguity; an effect occasionally distracting and frustrating to the reader, but most of the time effective at keeping the reader deliciously balanced on a precarious edge. Are Lucy's perceptions literal and physically real? Does she possess an extraordinary power? Or is she clinically disturbed? Is she crazy?
Melanie Tem writes surely and precisely. Her view from the inside of Lucy's head is virtually impeccable. Shifting sands of reality, of security and terror, of sexuality, all communicate in sure, uncomfortable ways that will remind most adult readers that maybe they wouldn't like to be kids again. Indeed, perhaps we do not have the fortitude and courage to deal well with childhood terrors as adults.
Keeping in mind the limitations of the point of view character, I'd still have liked to have seen a little more information about the adults in the story: Mom and Dad and especially the antagonist, Jerry. But the power of suggestion works for the most part, and is adroitly employed by the author. With its deep-rooted, quease-making, profoundly disturbing generator cranking away at efficiency deep under the surface, Prodigal is quite a good novel edging toward greatness. Probably one could apply the same comparison to the writer.
-- Edward Bryant, Locus, July 1991