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Father Knows Best
Penelope Evans's First Fruits
and Freezing

by Daphne Frostchild

It's impossible to anticipate where Penelope Evans will take the plot of her newest psychological thriller, although the basic images and thematic issues are laid openly before us--which is a stunning achievement in itself.

Kate Carr, the fourteen-year-old narrator of Penelope Evans's third novel (First Fruits), enjoys manipulating people, and she's remarkably good at it. When a new girl shows up in her class, for instance, she knows exactly what to say to make the girl feel forgotten at her old school and unwanted in her new one. Kate's still in training, though, and as she tells us over and over, it's her father, an Edinburgh minister, who's teaching her how to use It, that special ability to control people through hypnotic enthrallment. ("When you've got It," Kate tells us, "Nothing else counts. Especially if you know how to use It.")

There's a great tradition of the dangerously mesmerizing minister in both books and film, of course (Charles Laughton's The Night of the Hunter comes most readily to mind), and Evans lays her chilling clues down as cunningly as any who came before her. At first, the father's complaints sound mild enough:


Dad, who is a proper scream about these things, says [the elderly women who attend his services] have cups of tea which they keep ready for him in their handbags, but that's not true of course. You can't keep pots of tea in a handbag. All he's saying is, you can't escape old ladies when they're determined to give you tea.


But when we actually see him for the first time, a gulf opens between Kate's childlike,

First Fruits
Penelope Evans
Soho Press
253 pp.
$23 order now logo

Penelope Evans
Soho Press
287 pp.
$12 order now logo

worshipful perceptions and our own adult perceptions of him. He is sitting in his car, waiting for Kate to leave school. As he has taught her to do, she lingers behind the others so that she can be the last to leave the building, thereby standing out from the crowd:


It means I have to keep him waiting too, but he doesn't mind a bit. He parks the car next to where the sixth formers come out, stalking past on legs way to long for skirts that haven't fitted them since the fourth year. Well, you can imagine what they look like. Yet he doesn't complain--or look away--ever. He just stares and stares, never takes his eyes off them. He says it's a God-given opportunity to spot souls.


Chilling, eh?

Naturally, we expect Evans to bring Kate from innocence into experience, to close the gap between her and the reader's perceptions of her father. And Evans gives us one more horrific detail that seems to guarantee horrific revelations about her father and Kate's own past: one of Kate's legs is shorter than the other, but she's not allowed to ask why--or even to look at it, for that matter: "Actually, we prefer not to talk about it. He doesn't like it. And why should he, when he can't bear anything not to be perfect, least of all me?"

The problem for Kate, at least initially, is that she's such a good understudy that it's hard to make us sympathetic with her, even when she reveals how difficult it can be to keep her father happy (which entails hiding her flaws well enough to keep him from complaining). But as Evans slowly reveals to us, Kate is simply an abused child, and it's her moments of confessed vulnerability--more than her ironically naïve musings--that make us excuse her actions. At heart, of course, it's self-loathing that drives her father to overcompensating religion, and that he's driven his own daughter into a fragile inner hell is painful to read, indeed.

In fact, Kate's not as naïve as she first leads us to believe in the book's opening pages, and what she most wants, it seems, is for somebody to take her place--to deflect her father's attention and the anger that follows when mistakes are observed ("attention shared is attention halved"). Someone, in fact, like the new girl in school--a nice, worshipful girl to be offered up like a sacrifice to an angry god.

The skill with which Evans lays out her clues and twists Kate's voice to show her profound underlying vulnerabilities is astonishing: it's patient, intelligent and even fugue-like in its subtle complexities. It's impossible to anticipate where Evans will take the plot, although the basic images and thematic issues are laid openly before us--which is a stunning achievement in itself.


Evans's Freezing, newly published in paperback by Soho Press, makes for decidedly less intense reading. Where First Fruits is quietly, unpredictably unnerving, Freezing is comparatively casual and even funny at times, although its central storyline concerns the corpse of an unidentified woman and the setting is a morgue. (Hey, when I said it's funny, I didn't mean P.G. Wodehouse-funny.) There's a morbid bite to Evans's nicely understated black comedy, as we see when the narrator--Stuart, the morgue's twenty-eight-year-old photographer--describes his mother's death: "When I was three she was knocked over by a bus, not watching where she was going, apparently. Mary remembers her. She says she always did have difficulty concentrating."

The two novels are not completely dissimilar: like First Fruits, Freezing has a dysfunctional family at its center, along with a morally compromised father. But Stuart is no Kate. His fevered fascinations are directed not at his father but at that unidentified corpse in the morgue, and he sees himself (correctly, as it turns out) as a chivalrous knight rather than a devious sinner.

Freezing is a good, entertaining novel, but First Fruits is in another class altogether, and fans of psychological thrillers should put it at the top of this season's must-read list.
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