begins with Naomi Ash dragging her boyfriend's dead body down the stairs. Unpleasant, surely, but not, in a culture as numb to violence as ours, especially shocking. The nasty surprise is that we feel every ounce of skinny Peter Morton's weight, that we worry along with Naomi whether the hole she digs to bury him is big enough: "Once when I was a child I tried burying a dead cat in a hole not big enough for it, and I still cannot forget pushing down on it to make it fit, pressing its head with my trowel. Its ears filled horribly with dirt." That last detail is our signal that we have entered a world every bit as visceral as our own, and possibly every bit as mad. Despite the corpse that lies hidden for the first part of the book, After Life
is not a whodunit, not even a "whydunit," but some other beast entirely: a tense exploration of the ties between faith, will, and fakery--and between this world and the next.
For Naomi Ash is a medium, and the daughter of a medium, who lives in a town founded and populated entirely by other mediums. From the beginning, she's been privy to all the tricks of her trade. Growing up in New Orleans, she helped her spiritualist mother by faking spirit voices through fans and, in one case, draping herself in a lace tablecloth as the ghost of a dead child. But what begins in fraud, she tells us, has ended "in something at least close to truthfulness":
I, for one, couldn't always disentangle the real from the fraudulent, the truth from its trappings. Sometimes it seemed as if my mother's fakery was just a more interesting and beautiful version of what was real. Sometimes it seemed that the truth needed the lies, as if there wouldn't be any truth without them. At any rate, whatever my mother was doing, it was a rare and powerful thing, perhaps even a form of magic. It enthralled me.
After their move to Train Line, New York, a fairy tale Victorian village run slightly to seed, Naomi and her mother settle into working Psychic Faires and message services. Then Naomi meets Peter Morton, a graduate student on vacation, and falls in love; 10 years later, she's still paying the price.
First-time novelist Ellis produces lovely prose: "A lonely life is a crime without witnesses, it is a movie playing in a locked theater; can you ever really be sure what happens in it? Can you be sure that it happens at all?" At the same time, this author's writing can be willfully unglamorous: her characters have dirty hair and clothes with stains on them, and their world smells like ours, like fried things and wet earth and dirty lake water. In its mix of the mundane and the magical, After Life gets at some fundamental truths about the dead and those they leave behind. You don't have to believe in the spirit world to understand Naomi's final insight as a medium--or to know just how much it hurts: "He would never be completely gone, but he would never, ever be with me." --Greta Kline
From Publishers Weekly
The opening line of Ellis's debut novel, a psychological thriller, engages the reader like tossing a pork chop to a hungry dog: "First, I had to get his body into the boat." The intrigue is anchored and the suspense heightened by recurring themes of mysticism and the supernatural, centered on a complex, finely drawn mother and daughter relationship. Naomi Ash and her mother, Patsy (aka Madame Galina Ash), flee their hometown of New Orleans after Patsy's s éances cause some trouble with the police. They move to Train Line, N.Y., home to America's largest community of mediums and spiritualists, where Patsy hosts a radio show, The Mother Galina Psychic Hour. Patsy's psychic powers are only partly phony, and both she and Naomi give accurate psychic readings to clients. But while the mother often fakes it, Naomi is honestly searching for her true spiritual gifts, trying to determine whether she really has the power to contact the dead. The story alternates between present and past, revealing how Naomi met and fell in love with a graduate student from Oregon, Peter Morton. Details of his death come to light slowly as, 10 years later, in the present, his bones have been found. A police investigation closes in on Naomi, who has done all the wrong things, keeping Peter's personal effects, for instance. The story ends with a spooky calm rather than a bang, Ellis choosing an evocative, poetic and thoughtful denouement to an action-packed showdown. An excellent storyteller, this new author exhibits a gift for subtlety and suggestive understatement even when dealing with such potentially gaudy themes as clairvoyance, necromancy and murder. 5-city author tour. (July)
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