The Exiles

By Matthew Kirkpatrick


Ricochet Editions
March 2013

Reviewed by Lauren Perez


The Exiles by Matthew Kirkpatrick defies brief summarization. It's about a boy who lives with his mother and sister trying to figure out what has happened to his father; it's about a girl trying to escape the gaze of others; it's about a monster in the basement; it's about the hidden violence that shadows the everyday; it's about the way memory warps and fades; it's about what narratives we choose to live by, what myths enclose and enfold us.

The world of The Exiles is a blurred line between the realistic and the fantastic, a family photo warped by water and light. James, a boy just beginning to edge into his teens, believes his father has been locked in the basement. He doesn't know why or by whom, but his father is in a labyrinth built out of cardboard boxes filled with baby clothes, the cast offs and memories of the family. In his father's place, his mother presents a "new" father, a man James cannot really see. Neither James nor the reader know what is real.

Across the street another family drama is unfolding. The neighbor girl James watches is plotting her escape from her family. Her parents, emergency dispatchers, are so afraid of the world they won't let her leave the house for anything except school. She spends her time running up and down the porch steps, trapped in an eternal loop, and locked into the house at night when her parents go to work.

The prose is so shadowed it is hard to resist the temptation to hang weight from every word, to read lines like, "He shows her his hammer and his coffee can of nails and screws," as sexual. James plays with a "horse head doll," a nebulous toy that could as believably be an actual dead horse's head as a broken toy. The lines between animal and human are necessarily blurred—and not just by the minotaur in the basement. The neighbor girl's fitness-obsessed parents become a single animal on the treadmill, "the soft thumping of her parents' four feet running in rhythm." There is something predatory about all the characters. James's mother locks him in the closet for investigating the basement. His sister discovers the skeleton of their cat. The father of the girl across the street beats a boy, and that boy stalks the girl across the street, breaking into her room to watch her sleep. As the neighbor girl realizes: "Every man or boy she knows is constantly watching." Someone is always watching someone else, stalking through the suburban lawns.

Of course the half-man half-beast exiled to the basement labyrinth inescapably brings to mind Theseus and the Minotaur—or Dante's minotaur, standing at the gates to the seventh circle of hell. The minotaur is not defeated, and James' story never quite becomes the hero's journey. The neighbor girl across the street is locked up every night by her parents, her father cautions her not to "fuck or huff glue." She is allowed only as far as the front steps, where she runs up and down, caught in a time loop. Hard not to think of Danae, locked in a tower by her father because he was afraid that her son would kill him. The neighbor girl's father fears the eventuality of his daughter's sexuality, and is as incapable of guarding against it. A boy from her high school follows her home, is her first flirtation, and, like Zeus' shower, he slips into her home uninvited. When James's sister gets lost in the basement, she thinks of Hansel and Gretel before deciding that she will not share their fate, "she will not go far."

But Kirkpatrick does not expect the myths to carry the weight of the book, and each of the characters in this slim volume have depths beneath their surface, human behaviors and humor. They bend and distort their stories, slipping the noose of their expected endings. Each section is a different story, and a different point of view: the boy hero, the princess in the tower, the sister in the woods. Depending on the perspective, even the worst tragedy and horror can be relegated to a subplot, even to invisibility. Kirkpatrick puts pressure on the stories we think we know, troubling them, leaving behind only the uncanny sense that no one is who they say they are.