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A convoluted supernatural plot can't compete with out of this world prose
on March 19, 2012
I'm one of those reviewers who tends to start with a plot summary. So, I could tell you that this is the story of twenty-something Julia Severn, an "Initiate of Promise" at the Institute of Integrated Parapsychology. The novel begins by detailing Julia's complex and troubled relationship with her mentor, Madame Ackerman. Their problems may stem from the mentor's fear of being supplanted by the protégé, or perhaps they're due to Ackerman's resemblance to Julia's mother who committed suicide when Julia was an infant. For these reasons (and others), things sour, but their separation plagues Julia physically. She leaves school and spends the next year seeking a medical explanation for her physical decline. None is forthcoming until an odd girl literally trips into her life and explains that she's under "psychic attack." Offers of both help and employment are proffered.
And that--as they say--is just the beginning. The plot of this novel felt like a game of Three Card Monty, with constantly shifting character identities and allegiances. I didn't read this novel because the description of the plot interested me. Ghosts, psychics, astral projections? Definitely not my cup of tea. However, a book about mother-daughter relationships and other female rivalries? Now you're talking! And that's very much what Heidi Julavits delivered. The whole psychic thing was merely the backdrop against which every type of mother-daughter drama imaginable was displayed.
And all this talk of "drama" sounds dramatic, and some of it was. But a lot of it was very, very funny. And even more of it was weird. And some of it was just plain confusing. I stand by my Three Card Monty analogy. But through it all was Heidi Julavits' sparkling prose. So much of language is merely functional. And, sure basic communication is a good goal. But the sentences of this novel were full of surprises and unexpected turns. They communicated, but they also delighted in a way that is truly rare. This is the sort of novel that leaves me wondering, "Why haven't I read this author before?" I know there's another book somewhere on the shelf. I will be digging it up, because Ms. Julavits has charmed me utterly with her inventive use of language. Plot, in this case, was almost immaterial.