O H Bennett’s Creatures Here Below is an accomplished and compelling novel. Structured around character-titled sections, the author pushes us into the lives of Mason and his mother Gail. They share top billing in terms of the number of sections dedicated to them, but not at the expense of an impressive supporting cast whose fears and dreams are as central to the plot as they are to the human condition. Mason is seemingly about to go off the rails. His higher-achieving brother Tyler has had the benefit of growing up alongside his father Dan, even if his parents no longer live together.
By breaking the novel into sections titled ‘Mason’, ‘Gail’ etc, Bennett greatly increases the scope of authorial control, skilfully using it to shift theÂ time frame, introduce and develop narrative strands, and heighten tension. It is subtly controlled and never invasive or contrived. At the end of the book’s (and Mason’s) first section we learn Mason has issues, a gun and a need to resolve these with someone called Pony. Pony, it turns out, is his father.
Parenthood is the central theme of Creatures Here Below and Bennett explores the parent-child relationship confidently. The variety of experience gives rise to the intensity of the characters’ lives. It’s no coincidence that Bennett’s book is dedicated to ‘mothers and daughters’. He vividly sketches nightmares, idylls, hopes and anxieties. Gail owns a boarding house that she bought with Dan, who continues to own a stake following their separation. The big house is a suitable metaphor for community. Annie and Jackie are two of the residents. Annie is older and growing frailer. Jackie is a single mother, struggling to balance work, have a life and cope with the constant demands of a small child. As we progress through the novel, personal histories spill. Ghosts pervade and we see the influence that people and events can have on an individual, even decades later. Regret haunts but can offer salvation by guiding others to learn from previous experience.
We learn that Gail gave birth to three children, the first when she was fourteen, but her daughter was taken from her lest she bring shame upon herself, her family and the church. Bennett handles this effectively and the text never drops into the melodramatic:
Â Gail tried to speak. She had to tell him what had happened. She touched her stomach. â€œMy baby, they took it,â€ she said…
…â€œThe girlâ€™s distraught,â€ Alice Durkee said. â€œHer baby didnâ€™t survive. It was born dead.â€
Gail held her stomach. The haunt pressed against her, that small weight that had briefly rested there. Lillian in the first minutes of her life had rested there and Gail could feel the weight, the movement of her, hear her crying, informing the world that she was a living, breathing, integral part of it.
The writer has a natural ability to reel the reader in along with the narrative. The loss of her daughter haunts Gail throughout her life. Jackie’s story unravels in parallel as she seeks out the father of her child. It’s a reunion that doesn’t pan out as she’d have liked. She loses her job and gets behind in her rent. Jackie and Gail’s relationship becomes more strained. Bennett artfully weaves the interconnections between people’s lives. He offers up no easy solutions and paints his story in a variety of shades of grey.
The responsibilities and impact of fatherhood are as equally well developed as that of motherhood. Mason badly wanted his father to be there for him as he grew up and was jealous of Tyler’s relationship with Dan. When Mason finally discovers Pony he tries to develop a bond with his father. Pony takes Mason out with him, usually on drinking sessions. It soon becomes clear that Pony is a violent alcoholic womanizer. Mason’s mental image of the father he never had slowly disintegrates and he develops a slow burning desire to remove him from his life permanently. Never is his revulsion at his father so great as the scene when Pony sets him up with a prostitute to lose his virginity:
Her breasts were in his hands one moment, then pooled on his chest. She inserted him. A thin line of breath snaked into his ear. The thick air, full of her scent, did not seem enough to sustain him. Each lungful seemed less than the one before. Then he smelled something that froze him, a scent that,
once heâ€™d noticed it, pervaded the bed and his nostrils: his fatherâ€™s cologne. It was there, riding him in waves just as the woman did.
He told her then to stop. â€œGet off of me,â€ he gasped and pushed against her weight. He had to get free of the cloud he pulled into his lungs with each breath. Ponyâ€™s cologne scalded his airways. He fought only to disentangle himself, he thought, but the woman began screaming his fatherâ€™s name over and over. Mason said, â€œI ainâ€™t Pony. I ainâ€™t Pony,â€ as he fought to get free.
The scene is cinematic in its execution. Mason sets off to find Pony with a gun stashed in a duffel bag. An acquaintance, Ken Gamble offers him a ride out to Washington DC. I’m a bit of a sucker for hat-tipping in novels so I like to imagine that this was one of the co-creators of the Philadelphia Sound, albeit with an inverted morality. This road trip results in Mason meeting Gina and the two form an uneasy bond. It’s difficult to find fault with this novel, it’s solid and well-crafted. There is one scene between Mason and Gina that felt like a pastiche of a 40s movie but it would be unfair to detract from O H Bennett’s overall achievement. Creatures Here Below deserves to be read widely. Bennett flawlessly moves through their lives at different periods, shifting the timescales to successfully knit this story together. The characters are layered and complex and relationships are beautifully interwoven. They offer hope in spite of broken dreams, and redemption. Invest some time in their company and you will be rewarded.
~Martin Macaulay lives, writes and works in Scotland~