James Han Mattson’s brilliant new novel Reprieve brings disparate characters together in a strikingly original tale.
The university town of Lincoln, Nebraska – smack-bang in the heart of American corn country — is an unlikely setting for a collection of characters in search of their dreams. This is just one way in which James Han Mattson subverts expectations in Reprieve (Bloomsbury), his intense, thrilling new novel.
This mid-western, mid-sized metropolis is the venue where his vividly drawn characters converge, all seeking to meet their destinies, all with their own motivations. The critical question: what happens when those motivations can be exploited?
Firstly, we meet Kendra, a fifteen-year-old girl, whose family life has just been upended by the death of her father. Fiesty but insecure, she’s a horror fanatic who feels disconnected from all except her friend and fellow enthusiast of the genre, Shawn — a bond that evolves into a budding romance. But in the wake of her father’s passing, limited opportunities force her and her mother to move to Nebraska, and to the support of extended family.
Next, there’s Jaidee. Upon his introduction, he’s a superhero-obsessed Thai teenager from a well-to-do family, busying himself with fantasy scripts devised with the help of his friends. As he grows, he becomes more aloof, which eventually ossifies into arrogance. He falls head over heels for an American English teacher, Victor, which leads to designs on a new life in the States.
Leonard is a late-thirties hotel manager, whose ambition and travels have seldom stretched beyond the limits of the Nebraska state line. His world is opened, however, upon a chance meeting in a supermarket. Love ensues with the worldlier Mary but turns sour as he enters the orbit of John Forrester, the wealthy proprietor of Quigley House: a ‘full contact’ escape room that attracts patrons with the lure of cash from near and far.
The entire first act of Reprieve is devoted to the exposition of these characters. Throughout the rest of the book, the plot is advanced through their perspectives: Kendra finding her feet in an environment where she can cultivate her love of the occult among liked-minded folk; Jaidee chasing his obsession and attempting to take on a new identity in the process; and Leonard, a lover scorned, dramatically bouncing between realms of resentment and fantasy.
The painstaking rendering of these characters — each so separate in identity, motivation, and prejudice — sustain enough interest in and of themselves to spin-off into completely new narratives. But what makes Reprieve so powerful is the way Mattson harnesses their discrete energies and focuses them on a singular climactic event at John Forrester’s house of horrors. In the passage below, he explains the appeal of the Quigley experience to Kendra’s cousin Bryan, who is a sceptic:
“All the things we’re taught about respect, ambition, loyalty, honesty, love — fear takes all those teachings and gorges on them, then spits out the bones. And in my observation, there’s only one thing that can triumph over fear, at least temporarily.”
“What’s that?” Bryan asked.
“Well,” John said, “greed, of course.”
Reprieve has many points of intersectional interest to explore. On one level, the commentary on race politics and deep-seated prejudices is clear, as are the themes of exploitation and manipulation in all their forms. But never, not once, does it approach the didactic. In fact, you might only begin to think of the book’s wider implications after you’ve put it down, such is the tidal strength of James Han Mattson’s story-telling abilities.
Reprieve is a classic-in-waiting; you won’t want it to end, but alas, you cannot put it down. While you’re reading it, you simply exist within the story. But afterwards, its imagery, tragedy, and all the thoughts it effortlessly provoked exist within you.
Reprieve is out now via Bloomsbury.