I was bit divided about starting on Samantha Hunt's 'Mr Splitfoot'. Some reviewers liked it, some don't, mainly because of what they expect to be in a contemporary gothic novel. I don't really care. (Reviews here, here, here and here.)
Set in a almost fanatical 'Love of Christ! Foster Home, Farm and Mission' in upstate New York, the home is headed by a creepy man they called Father Arthur. Two 17-year-olds Nat and Ruth, along with a strange older Mr. Bell who lives in the basement, host séances, charge the other residents to contact lost relations. The children said they enlist the help of spirit guide Mr. Splitfoot to do this. It's a total scam. They do this all the way even after Ruth marries Mr. Bell in order to avoid being married off to a complete stranger named Zeke (arranged by the Father), then they and Nat left the Home.
"I'm glad you asked." Mr. Bell waits for the man to pass out of earshot. "First of all, just listen." Mr. Bell cups his ear. "They'll tell you what they want you to say. Listen, then feed it back to them. You've heard of psychoanalysis? Maybe you haven't, but it's like that. And if you have nothing to go on, keep it general. Keep it far in the past. No one's going to recognize their great-great-grandfather." Mr. Bell shakes a small pile of salt onto his fingertip and rubs it on his gums. "When all else fails, memorize a few old movies. Those'll do in a pinch."
"Someone's going to think we're criminals and lock us up."
Mr. Bell hunkers in close, protecting a featherless newborn bird. He looks Ruth up and down. "But you already are locked up. Aren't you, dear?"
The narrative chugged along fine in third person. Then we come to present-day adult Ruth and the narrative shifts to 'I'. Ruth's pregnant niece Cora tells the story, and her own story, and how she's re-connected with Aunt Ruth a good fourteen years later when the latter appears on her doorstep. The single mother-to-be was lost and felt torn about her unborn child, life and men in general. Ruth now doesn't talk, and doesn't seem to utter a single word. Yet Cora follows Aunt Ruth on a strange sort of walk that lasts three whole months or so, to a derelict little cottage. Cora meets Nat, who's now 31 years old.
We learn what happened to Ruth and Mr. Bell and Nat in those intervening years. At some point, apparently spurned suitor Zeke was mad enough to return to shoot Mr. Bell and Ruth, and they sank into the lake, forever missing. Nat doesn't know that. He thought Ruth to be dead. And she is.
It goes back and forth like that. Past and present stories hit the readers altogether. Rather jerky. I felt a little whacked at the end of the ermm journey. I understand the reviews now. The narrative is a tad annoying in its jumbled unclarity, and it isn't as creepy as I had hoped.
All the years, he thought Ruth was dead. Now he knows she is because she lifts one hand to us, a wave hello, goodbye, gentle, like a windows thrown open onto everything kind and good that Ruth always was.
Her other hand holds a box, the same box Nat is holding, weathered old cardboard. Her box is a twin, a sister, only hers is empty now. She smiles, so pleased to see Nat and me together at the end. She lifts the sun off the water, all of it. She gives Nat the things they once had to share, breath, life. She doesn't need those things anymore.