When it comes to works of particular authors, there are a lot of debut novels I have yet to read. This is especially true of authors I've become a fan of over the years, as I have yet to read Stephen King's Carrie or Clive Barker's The Damnation Game. But give me time. However, when it comes to Lisa Mannetti and her debut novel, The Gentling Box--winner of the Bram Stoker Award for Best First Novel in June of this year--I'm content in knowing I've gotten in on the ground floor of what's sure to be a celebrated storyteller's career.
Thanks to the Stokers, I became aware of this novel back in June when the winners were announced. And after reading about the premise for the book I placed it on my wish list. Well, Lisa Mannetti, herself, was charitable enough to forward a review copy of the book to me. Having now read The Gentling Box, it's abundantly clear why it has received such praise.
The story takes place during the 1860s in eastern Europe, mostly through Hungary and Romania. Imre, a half-gypsy horse trader, learns via a messenger that his mother-in-law, Anyeta, is close to death and she wishes to see her estranged daughter, Mimi, one last time. Reluctantly, Imre takes his wife, Mimi, and daughter, Lenore, by caravan to visit the gypsy colony to which they once belonged. However, Imre learns that Anyeta wants more from him and Mimi than a mere visit. And even though the old witch is dead prior to their arrival, her plans are already set in motion and ominous occurrences threaten to tear Imre's family apart along with everyone else in his life he holds dear. Before long, Imre must wrestle with the prospect of contending with Anyeta's other-worldly manipulations, or if he'll succumb to her evil intent and his own cowardice.
Spooky is too cartoonish a word to use in describing this novel. Melancholic doesn't work either. I guess I'll go with a trust standard and say Gentling Box is haunting. A bit quaint and simplistic, but after reading this novel the characters still resonate. So maybe haunting is an apt word to use.
In a story populated by gypsies, or Romani, it's kind of easy for the characterization to drift towards parody and stereotype--too many Saturday morning cartoons as a child can instill such hokey images. Lisa Mannetti does justice to her creations, however, by avoiding any such pitfalls and providing a genuine and redolent world where these characters can play out their tragedy and joy. It's easy to tell she did a lot of exhaustive research to get the details down, which she does. There are even sporadic moments of the Romani language used that are translated for readers in such a way you hardly notice you're not fluent.
Imre's voice stands out as authentic, even in the most extraordinary of circumstances. Early in the novel, he bears witness to a wrenching scene, as Mimi sneaks into her mother's quarters at night to claim a powerful talisman that's been willed to her--think cursed monkey paw to the nth degree. But to claim the dangerously potent object, she must first sever her own hand, as Imre watches helplessly from beneath the caravan as her blood drips through the floorboards onto him. Such a display is a cakewalk though for the tormented man, as Anyeta's deeds gradually escalate in her attempts to return from the grave and carry on her wicked ways. It's only when he fully realizes his daughter, Lenore, is part of the old witch's end game that he understands he's the only one who can put a stop to her.
I think the only criticism I can lay upon this book is more about Imre's reactions to certain events, but to read the novel in its entirety I think that's less to do with Lisa Mannetti's writing than with the very real flaws Imre carries with him. He's deceived by Anyeta on more than one occasion, and I couldn't help thinking just how gullible the guy could get at times. But the strength of her character weighed against the slowly sapped strength of his, I think he ends up doing admirably well.
I have mentioned before that horror literature bears as sweet a fruit as any other facet of the writing world. The Gentling Box backs my assertion. I've also mentioned that women as are as adept at crafting a chilling story as any man, more so at times. The Gentling Box backs that up too. The writing delves into some very disturbing and sometimes nasty moments in these characters' lives, but Mannetti lays it all out with such a beautiful style you don't really mind. Unless you're especially squeamish, then there might be a couple scenes you'll want to gloss over.
I can't wait to see what else Mannetti has up her sleeve. I'm not sure when her next novel, The Everest Hauntings, is due to be published, but I'm putting it on my wish list right now. Paranormal activity + Mount Everest? Yes, please.