"A Twisted Ladder" Book Review
Written by Rhodi Hawk
2009, 544 pages, Fiction
Released on September 1st, 2009
I've read Southern Gothic novels, interesting thrillers, love stories, epic multi-generational narratives, and eerie tales about devils and invisible children that only one person can see. After reading Rhodi Hawk's A Twisted Ladder, I can say I've read a book that is all of those wrapped into one and sprinkled with a few extras.
A Twisted Ladder tells the story of Madeleine LeBlanc, a psychologist who has spent her whole career trying to figure out the cause of her father's schizophrenia and a way to treat if effectively. Her mission stems from a childhood spent suffering from her dad's violent bouts and the time he disappeared for a few days. The situation left Madeline and her brother Marc to raise themselves on the Louisiana Bayou. When Marc takes his own life on a fishing boat in the middle of Bayou Black, Madeleine is caught in a whirlwind exploration of her brother's actions, her dad's situation, and her family history. What comes out of that examination is a series of sinister revelations about her family's past. These things are not just history: they have a direct effect on the present and, in some cases, can impact the future in disturbing ways. Instead of staying in the past, the history Madeline discovers reaches out and wraps her life in chaos. What she sees and learns will shake her academic knowledge to the core and will make her question everything she knows, including her father's schizophrenia and the definition of reality. In the process, she'll find love, battle her own heritage, and try to understand the ghosts of the past in order to save her future.
The first time I read a James Lee Burke novel, I fell in love with the way he was able to bring Louisiana to me via his writing. Hawk's work is very different from Burke's, but she achieves the same thing. The smells, textures, music, food, culture, language, colors, and weather of Louisiana are all here, beautifully brought to life by the author's elegant, lyrical prose.
Besides taking the reader to the place where the action takes place, Hawk manages to switch between the present and the past without complicating the narrative or making it feel like the flashbacks are interrupting the main story. Also, A Twisted Ladder has a wonderful balance when it comes to atmosphere and Hawk often conveys tension, creepiness, anxiety, love, and fear within the same chapter.
There are a few unique things about A Twisted Ladder that make the story a gripping, cerebral read (this last adjective has a very literal connotation that I'll let you discover by reading the book and learning about neuroplasticity). However, one thing that stands out is that it contained echoes of literature that are far removed from the narrative. By having the family drama always in the background and giving a rich historic and cultural context, A Twisted Ladder brings to mind novels like Loida Maritza Perez's Geographies of Home, Mayra Montero's In the Palm of Darkness and even Robert Tallant's The Voodoo Queen, which I read as a child (don't judge my parents) and still remember vividly.
Whether you think epic is an adjective that applies to something that's really cool and unique or adhere to the more classic definition: something that extends beyond the usual or ordinary not only in size but also in scope, go ahead and consider A Twisted Ladder an epic novel.
Deep, complex, multilayered, and beautifully written, A Twisted Ladder is an impressive debut that's also one of the best ghost/river devil/dark magic/creepy stories you'll read. As a bonus, Tor will be releasing the follow-up to this book, titled The Tangled Bridge, in October, so there's no better time than now to get your hands on both tomes. A trip to the darkest corners of Louisiana and the human psyche await you.
Want to comment on this review? You can leave one below or head over to the HorrorTalk Review Forum.