A Twisted Ladder / Rhodi Hawk
Thursday, October 15, 2009 at 10:46AM
Dark Scribe Magazine in Book Reviews

Forge / September 2009
Reviewed by: Joan Turner

Like the mighty Mississippi meanders down to the Gulf twisting and sometimes turning back upon itself, Rhodi Hawk’s ambitious debut novel spans the lives of the current generation of New Orleans’ LeBlancs and the family lineage back to 1912.

At the heart of the present day story is Dr. Madeleine LeBlanc, a psychologist at Tulane University who has based her career on working to discover the cause of her father’s schizophrenia. Often violent, sometimes disappearing for months at a time, Daddy Blank – as he is known throughout New Orleans – left Madeleine and her brother, Marc, to grow up practically alone on the bayou. Now he still refuses the medication that would keep him stable. Madeleine hopes by understanding the illness, she can find the cure.

When a family tragedy strikes and Madeleine herself shows symptoms of mental illness, she suspects the disorder may be generic and that her 114-year-old great grandmother, Chloe, may hold the key to the mystery. As she explores her family’s past, a childhood friend-turned-psychotic killer becomes a dangerous problem.

The story flashes back to Hahnville, Louisiana, 1912, and the LeBlanc’s sugar plantation, Terrefleurs, where young Chloe, already skilled in Voodoo and Houma medicine, is servant of Helen, wife of plantation owner Remi LeBlanc.

Helen dies suddenly, her death blamed on “worker’s sickness,” a disease contracted from caring for evacuees of the recent flood. Shortly afterward, Remi notices a foreign substance in his food, and next morning he finds a gris-gris – a magical charm of bones, feathers, and herbs – in his bed. Chloe is working her river magic, and not surprisingly, she soon becomes his companion.

Growing mental problems drive Remi to the bottle for comfort, and as he loses his grip on reality, Chloe takes over the plantation, gaining complete control and engaging in illicit means to keep the plantation solvent. She rules with an iron hand and is determined that the couple’s four children learn and carry on the dark arts they have inherited from her.

The novel’s title refers to DNA, a double helix containing the nucleic acids that usually form the basis of heredity. The book explores the possibility that intuition, clairvoyance, and other psychic phenomena might be passed on from one generation to the next.

To substantiate her theme, Hawk gives the family’s history a predominant place in the story, placing it on almost equal footing with the present and constantly switching between the two. But this method of plotting is not without its drawbacks. The reader is continuously aware that much of the action has already occurred. Thus the frequent switches in time and place are not only a distraction, they eliminate much of the suspense. Reducing the back story to parts that relate directly to the current situation and focusing on the present might have helped the novel read more smoothly and have eliminated much of the verbosity. But despite these problems with the novel’s narrative structure, the subject matter is fresh and intriguing and the author handles characterization and scene ably.

A Twisted Ladder is an impressive first novel and the first in a series from an author that shows real promise. (In fact, Hawk won the International Thriller Writer’s Scholarship for an early draft of A Twisted Ladder.) Rhodi Hawk is a name to watch.

Purchase A Twisted Ladder by Rhodi Hawk.

Article originally appeared on Dark Scribe Magazine (http://www.darkscribemagazine.com/).
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