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No light snack, Kelland is a novel you can sink your teeth into, chew on for a good while, and still have more for later. This is good news, since its dark, mysterious, smoky flavor is worth savoring.
Bens’s strategy is to introduce us to a collection of disparate characters, then lead us along—courtesy of his confident, unobtrusive prose—as we learn their stories and seek a reason for bringing this seemingly random grab-bag of people and events together.
The key to the mystery is Kelland, a protean being who appears in each character’s life in some unexpected way, with fateful results. As various strands of narrative are pulled artfully together, the story reaches a climax in which a violent act expresses the grief and rage and guilt of these characters, and brings a different outcome to each.
It is up to the reader, finally, to decide who or what Kelland is. Nemesis? Agent of change? Fate personified? It says a lot for this novel that it leaves us with questions that are well worth pondering.
Kelland did contain some disappointments for me. A few scenes had a perfunctory feel, as if the author were rushing to establish some plot points and move on. A wedding scene, for example, seems to have been plucked from a box labeled “generic wedding scenes.” And I ached for Lucas, a 15-year-old, to show some trace of personality in his online journal, which reveals nothing about the boy as a person—it’s all generic teen angst. I would have loved to come away from the book with a sense of Lucas as a memorable character.
The most developed character here is Toan, a Vietnamese immigrant with a difficult past and uncertain future. A gay man and a musician, his life is going about as well as can be expected when more misfortune strikes. Toan works and lives in a Hollywood neighborhood that is rich in detail and atmosphere; if the novel consisted solely of his story, it would be well worth reading. We’re fortunate that Bens gives us much more in this generous and ambitious book.
Reviewed by Wayne Courtois