Filler content with vampires

This review was posted to the old TTA Press website on 8 August 2007:-

HAWKES HARBOR by S. E. HINTON
Pan Macmillan hardback, 251pp, £14.99

Every so often we are privileged to behold the spectacle of mainstream writers dipping a hesitant toe in the muddy waters of genre. Usually this involves exploitation of themes and ideas that have been common currency in genre for a couple of decades at least, for which trick said authors are hailed as true originals and feted by the literary establishment, all the while denying any hint of genre taint (this is known as the Atwood Effect), but occasionally mainstream writers bring a different slant to familiar material and the end result is as refreshing as it is unexpected. I lean toward the latter judgement in the case of Hawkes Harbor by S. E. Hinton, better known as the author of Rumble Fish, The Outsiders and That Was Then, This Is Now.

The story begins with Dr Phillip McDevitt, director of the Terrace View Asylum, intrigued by new patient Jamie Sommers, who suffers from depression, partial amnesia and an unaccountable fear of the dark. Slowly Jamie’s back story is filled in, his unhappy childhood raised by nuns, life in the navy and then various adventures in the China Seas and Europe, such as gem smuggling, gun running for the IRA and seducing rich women, a life that took him outside the law until finally he washed up in the town of Hawkes Harbor in Delaware. Then, just as a breakthrough looms, Jamie’s wealthy sponsor, Grenville Hawkes, removes him from the asylum against the good doctor’s wishes.

It’s Hawkes’ own secret that is endangered. He is a vampire, discovered by Jamie and woken from a centuries old sleep, now seeking to make right the mistakes of his past. But Hawkes’ supernatural status is largely an irrelevance. The meat of the book lies in the relationship between the two men, that of an abandoned son and an older man with an unspoken yearning for the affirmation of fatherhood. They are two halves of the same equation, needing each other to be complete. Initially grounded in fear and tyranny, as their relationship grows Jamie regains his independence, becoming a valued member of the community, earning a respect and self-worth that he has never before experienced, and Hawkes recovers his humanity, to become the father Jamie never knew, a bond of genuine affection developing.

Hawkes Harbor is an unusual book, which is to its credit, one which I enjoyed very much and found more interesting than most novels in the vampire subgenre. Agreed, the vampire elements seem slightly off kilter to the rest of the narrative (we never learn how Hawkes became a vampire or regained his humanity, and it’s tempting to dismiss the whole thing as an illusion on Jamie’s part), begging the question of how necessary they are to the story. Still, while actually reading the book, this is never an issue and Hinton writes of personal and emotional matters with an admirable lightness of touch and sensibility, making them central to her story rather than one element lost among many, and never over egging the pudding so that the end result is uplifting rather than stultifying. I felt for Jamie in his childhood dilemma, was able to understand how he became the man he did, and was delighted to see him escape from out of the shadow of conman Kell, his evil genius, finding a much more appropriate father figure in Grenville Hawkes, with his moment of epiphany a simple joy to read. At heart this is an almost Capraesque story of the little man who rises above his circumstances to do good, one that can’t help but be appealing, and if it carries a subtext regarding vampirism, the message would seem to be that when it comes to the important stuff, love and family and self-worth, the bloodsuckers are just as screwed up, and capable of redemption, as the rest of us.

All the same, Buffy the Relationship Counsellor doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.

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