Saturday, January 15, 2011

The Cypress House - Michael Koryta


The Cypress House
Michael Koryta
Little, Brown and Company

Fiction



“They’d been on the train for five hours before Arlen Wagner saw the first of the dead men.” Arlen, a WWI vet, is travelling to the Florida Keys, looking for work, like just about everyone else in 1935. He’s spent the trip with a 19-year-old kid, Paul Brickhill. When he sees smoke in the eyes of his fellow travellers, he knows that something terrible is about to happen. He tries to get everyone off the train, but people aren’t inclined to listen to man who claims to have the ‘gift’ of seeing impending death. Only young Paul gets off the train with him.

The two men, looking for a place to spend the night before setting out again, join up with a man who claims that the local gypsies told him to keep an eye out for travellers in need. He offers them a ride, which is hard to refuse at this point. The trio eventually winds up at an isolated inn called the Cypress House. The place is run by Rebecca Cady, a tight-lipped woman who has clearly seen a lot in her life. She clearly doesn’t want them there. When the third man dies in a car explosion, Arlen and Paul are essentially stranded. The local sheriff arrests them for reasons that are murky at best, and jails them for reasons that are even more unclear. The local judge arrives to interrogate them.

When they’re finally released, they’re told, in no uncertain terms, to leave the area. War changes a man, and Arlen decides to stay on and help Rebecca, even though she doesn’t appear to want it. Paul wants to stay, too, but his reason is an infatuation with Rebecca. It’s clear to Arlen that all is not well at the Cypress House, and he’s puzzled about why he couldn’t see the driver’s impending death. Once things become clear, it may be too late for all of them.

This novel, by the author of the excellent SO COLD THE RIVER, begins as a paranormal, but turns into so much more. It almost reads like a noir. The atmosphere is described so well that I could almost feel the oppressive heat and humidity, echoing the oppressive nature of the authority figures in the town. The truth comes from Rebecca little by little, and it makes absolute sense that she would keep her own counsel. The story is really character-driven, with each person trying to make the best choices in the worst of circumstances. I really cared what happened to each individual.

Arlen’s stay is depicted in just enough day-to-day detail that it feels real. This makes the paranormal elements at once strange and believable. Arlen carries his gift like a burden, and it eventually becomes clear exactly why he feels this way. The details of his past are moving and only serve to deepen his character. At one point, he looks back to the first day at the inn and remembers that he and Paul only meant to spend a few hours there. He considers how it all changed so drastically. We’ve been on the trip with him, and look back with a sense of wonder, too. Even if you’re not a fan of ‘supernatural’ plotlines, I highly recommend this novel.

Rating: 9
January 2011
ISBN# 978-0-316-05372-3 (hardcover)

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