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Onyx reviews: A Twisted Ladder by Rhodi Hawk

The fertile Mississippi River Delta region is known for abundant crops of sugar cane, soybean, rice, cotton...and Southern Gothic novels. Rivers prone to flooding—thereby affecting the daily lives and family fortunes of those who live nearby—frequently inspire colorful legends and dark myths about demons associated with their capricious waters. Rhodi Hawk's clever debut is a fine entry in this field, bringing to mind Michael McDowell's Blackwater series.

The novel's dual strands—one taking place in modern times, the other almost a century earlier—are twisted together like the eponymous ladder, which also describes the structure of DNA, the double helix that governs which traits are passed on from one generation to the next.

At the center of the contemporary strand is Maddy LeBlanc, a PhD psychologist at Tulane who has devoted her career to solving the puzzle of the family affliction: paranoid schizophrenia. Her father, renowned throughout New Orleans as Daddy LeBlanc, has suffered from the disorder all his life. He is tolerated in that colorful city as just another eccentric; however, Maddy knows there is a dark side to her father's behavior. Her brother has also exhibited symptoms of the mental illness, though he was better at hiding them. Maddy herself has moments when she cannot trust her perceptions.

The parallel strand of the story starts in 1912, when a mysterious Creole named Chloe appears at Terrefleurs, the LeBlanc family sugar plantation, and is taken on as a servant. The LeBlancs haven't heard all of the stories that trailed Chloe from one plantation to the next, places where she was only welcome long enough to perform her arcane services. Jacob Chapman, master of Terrefleurs, doesn't ask any questions and, by taking her in, mutates the course of his family for generations.

Chloe gradually rises to a position of power in the LeBlanc family. She is aided by a special, hereditary talent that gives her access to information about her allies and enemies, and about the near future. One of her missions in life is to guarantee that each of her progeny learns to exploit the talent that is coded into his or her genes, a process akin to willful evolution.

However, every supernatural talent has repercussions. For the LeBlancs, by traveling to the other side for a glimpse of the future they risk picking up a hitchhiker on the return journey, a demon that will thereafter take up permanent residence with them. This is the real LeBlanc curse, not schizophrenia. The voice that Daddy LeBlanc has been hearing all his life isn't due to mental illness. It's the voice of the river demon, an inescapable, invisible companion constantly demanding his attention and obedience.

A violent death sets into motion a series of events that introduces Maddy to other family secrets, the most profound of which is the fact that her great-grandmother Chloe is still alive and amazingly active and influential for a 114 year old. This is just the first rung on the ladder—her family tree contains other branches she didn't previously know about.

Maddy is at home both in the civilized urban setting of New Orleans and in the wild swamps and bayous of the Louisiana countryside. These two different settings parallel the delicate line she learns to walk between the real world and the supernatural. Subjected to the overwhelming power of Chloe's descendants, she discovers the ability to resist and mentally rewire her brain, a process called neuroplasticity.

A Twisted Ladder is a thoroughly contemporary novel blending credible medicine and science with the arcane lore of voodoo. The Mississippi River stands as a metaphor for both destructive black magic and the scientific power of the mind, whose neural network it resembles. The book is ambitious as a debut, approximately 150,000 words in length, not all of them strictly necessary. It can be self indulgent at times, but the author's skill with language, characterization and plot make these indulgences forgivable.

Hawk's continuation of the saga of the LeBlanc clan is eagerly awaited. 

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