WARNING: This Review Contains Major Spoilers
There are several places, including the author’s own web site, where one can read the basic storyline of Kelland, Paul Bens’ new novel from Casparian Press, but I would like to talk about the novel’s theme, the nearly dream-like quality of some of the main characters, and the author’s inordinately amazing capacity and skill in awakening the dream.
There is a passage in Leviticus that serves as a references to a title I used for a Mystery I’m still writing, and the phrase is “Then the priest shall take some of the blood of the sin offering…” The title of my unfinished book (I have a couple!) is The Blood of the Sin, but after reading Kelland, by Paul Bens, I realize that our mutual Catholic upbringings have so completely informed what we write and our view of the world, and the sheath of silent shames have so quietly and invisibly covered our souls, hidden from the outside, visible at all moments to our own insides, that I felt as though I had just read a book written by my brother. Except I don’t have a brother. Or do I?
Kelland is a powerful, complicated story of a half dozen people whose lives are inextricably entwined with each other because of their individual and familial connections to a Roman Catholic priest pedophile. The adult’s actions, with their callous combination of sweet and salacious, forever impacts several characters’ youth, innocence and joy, and sets off a series of realities within each of the main characters that renders them either incapable or unwilling (or both) to differentiate between what is real and unreal. The characters are both the recipients and the purveyors of a fantasy generated within hearts and minds too wounded to be able to deal with the travesties committed against them (and by extension, their friends and their families) by the priest.
In a virtuoso writing performance, Bens manages to inject this story with as much hope as despair, as much innocence as guilt and as much forgiveness as accusation; that Bens is able to offer this parity, given the subject matter, is the true mark of a professional author. His characters are alive, even when they are dead, their spirits brought to life again by the people who loved them.
There is no self-pity in any of the character’s realities because, despite the terrors of their childhoods, Kelland, the multifaceted, mystical and mysterious character who visits them or members of their family, becomes the spiritual thread of near madness, salvation and vindication by which they each reach a powerful moment of clarity, confession, cleansing and catharsis. Kelland, the character in Bens’ book, is each victim’s personal manifestation of his or her very personal route to salvation.
Kelland, the concept, in Bens’ book, is the “blood of the sin offering” wherein all biblical references to blood serving as the symbol of forgiveness for sins committed converge. In the Leviticus verse, it is the “priest” who has sinned and must make a blood offering; but the brilliance of Bens’ novel is that the author knows that sins, like forgiveness, have no intrinsic parity: Each character, including the representatives of the Church, must make, or be forced to make, such an offering, sometimes figuratively, sometimes literally, with neither perpetrators nor victims spared the spillage of lifeblood. The suspenseful progression of how and where their lives converge into one crystal clear vision of recognition, as they recall, remember or reenact the shameful events foisted upon them by both loved ones and a stranger, events with meaning and consequences they in turn have leveraged as weaponry against themselves or others, is a masterful manifestation of writing at its most memorable.
I cannot overstate my amazement at how Bens shows, as only one who knows could show, the unbroken chain of relatedness that impacts and affects everyone who has ever known anyone who was scarred and damaged by the complete collapse of compassion and courage that has come to be manifested in a Catholic Church guilty of such betrayals as ought never to be visited upon its young acolytes. Intended as the guiding lights and beacons of hope to millions of Catholic children, male and female, some would say the Catholic Church actually has no suitable blood sin offering that they can make to receive forgiveness.
In Kelland, the members of the Church have the unenviable ability to deny culpability in the form sacred, ritualistic gestures geared to reflect a purity of intention and effect that simply does not exist. In Kelland, there is one scene of a large gathering to celebrate the priesthood anniversary of one of their own. The cruel penance for some of the guests is that they are invited to attend the celebration of a trust irrevocably broken. The anniversary celebration unexpectedly becomes a blood offering that perhaps only a parent could exact. How fitting, and not at all without irony, that the Catholic Church should use religious ritual, prayer and the appearance of sanctity to celebrate the virtual beheading it has levied upon its victims. Bens’ tight, taut and precise writing makes this a party no one should miss.
When I first finished reading Kelland, I was overwhelmed with vague feelings of discomfort at the aura of mystical uncertainty that permeated the book. And then I realized that Bens had accomplished exactly the nearly universal feelings of children attending Mass and Catholic school—the certainty that a child has that he will never be good enough, pure enough or saintly enough to be a good Catholic or a good person in a world populated with shadowy figures of absolute and rigid authority, hiding a punishingly distorted goodness turned to evilness by Papal fiat under veils and robes, while singing and speaking a foreign language. The Dominus vobiscum (the Lord be with you) and the et cum spirito tuo (and with your spirit), as well as the Kýrie, eléison; Christé, eléison; Kýrie, eléison refrain (“Lord, have mercy; Christ, have mercy; Lord, have mercy,”) of the Latin Mass, Catholic ceremonies, feasts and songs did not give way to clarity, confidence and comfort when the Mass began to be said in English with guitars, tambourines and drums. Because Kelland remained. And Kelland remains. And there really is no blood of the sin offering that seems equal and substantial enough to allow forgiveness…unless, that is, one begins with oneself.
Bens and I are separated in age by at least two decades, and we quite clearly attended different eras of the Catholic Church; so his is an especially remarkable talent that he has so perfectly captured the message, the impact and the methods of a powerful force (the Catholic Church) and its chosen disciples (the priests, the nuns, other Church officials and, indeed, the congregations), that I knew, and that decades later, he, too, knew. One might be tempted to say, “Some things never change,” but that would be inaccurate. With Kelland, Bens has single-handedly put in motion a change that speaks directly to the perpetrators, the enablers and the victims in a simple, eloquent, touchingly tender way that the Catholic Church, so full of its patriarchal psychoses and its gilt-edged swords of absolute power and imparted guilt, never credibly could—or more precisely, never credibly would. Although Kelland, the character, is different things to the different people in the book, he is, above all, the sum of all the parts of each of us. The black and blue cover art for the book, by Van L Ta, conjures up the perfect shadowy realities found within Bens’ story. The book will be released 1 September 2009.
I knew Paul Bens was a very good writer a few months ago, when I read and reviewed one of his short stories here. After reading Kelland, it would not now be an exaggeration to say, without reservation, that Paul Bens is a beautiful writer. I recommend Kelland to anyone who ever had a childhood. Beautiful work…brother.