Scott Elliott's impressive debut novel, Coiled in the Heart, is a moving tale of guilt, atonement and redemption that deftly melds images of Southern aristocracy with high-tech genius, haunting memories with the terror and ecstasy of new love. The novel's central figure, Tobia Caldwell, was born into a proud but declining Tennessee family. As a boy, a momentary impulse led him to provoke an older, unfriendly boy into a deadly encounter with a copperhead snake. Ashamed and frightened, he hides the truth from everyone but his father, who shields his son from scrutiny but admonishes him to atone for his act. As a young man, Tobia is introspective and haunted. His father has lost his position in a prestigious law firm and a foolish affair has resulted in his estrangement from his wife, who has suffered a debilitating stroke and can no longer speak. With Tobia's help, his father devotes himself to reclaiming his family's land and rekindling his wife's affections. But an unexpected letter from Merritt, the twin sister of the boy whose death Tobia was responsible for, shatters his ability to concentrate on the reclamation project. Tobia and Merritt had fallen in love back in college, but have since avoided each other. Her imminent return fills Tobia with anticipation and dread.
Elliott has crafted his novel's structure as carefully as his lyrical prose. Alternating chapters relate the events of the present day and describe the occurrences of the past that have shaped Tobia. As the chapters follow the characters forward in time, they impart a sense of onrushing destiny.
While readers delve deeper into the mysteries of Tobia's obsessions, they're sure to be spellbound by Elliott's assured style. In the tradition of Southern prose, he imbues his locations from aging mansions to teeming swamps to an eccentric's high-tech home with vivid detail. And he populates his places with characters as memorable as they are mysterious. Gregory Harris is a writer in Indianapolis.