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Customer Review

75 of 87 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Elegant, Touching, Transporting, September 17, 2013
This review is from: Help for the Haunted: A Novel (Hardcover)
John Searles' new novel is one of those rare books that envelops, absorbs, and encompasses you completely. From the very first chapter I was completely drawn into the world Searles created: it's 1989, and Sylvie and Rose Mason are the daughters of religious ghost hunters. Very late one winter's night the Masons are called to the town church to meet Rose, who has run off again. Sylvie waits in the car, until a terrible noise urges her inside. Rose isn't there, but a murdered is. Another shot rings out, and Sylvie awakens at the hospital with tinnitus, an orphan. Released into the care of her angry, wild older sister (who has finally turned up), Sylvie must try to come to terms with her new life, her estranged relationship with Rose, the mockery of the town for her parents' questionable livelihood, and all that she never really knew about her parents.

The synopsis and blurbs from other authors suggest that this will be a scary haunted house tale or riveting thriller. These statements are somewhat misleading. There is certainly an undercurrent of menace running through the novel. The Masons are involved in very mysterious activities, giving lectures on spirit activity and meeting with supposedly haunted people. They're loosely based on Ed and Lorraine Warren, ghost hunters involved in many supernatural investigations throughout the 70s and 80s. The occult museum in the basement and haunted doll locked in a case are borrowed from the Warrens. The gothic elements of the story add a spooky tone throughout, but this is where the `ghost story' plotline ends. The real plot is Sylvie's journey: her sister has little to do with her, the police are pressuring her to swear under oath about who she saw in the church that night, she's mocked by the town kids because her parents `were weird', her only other living relative is AWOL, and she has several strange encounters that make her question her parents, their work, and the family relationship she thought they had. A brilliant overachiever, the good daughter, the responsible kid, Sylvie embarks on a journey to learn the truth about her parents' career and their death.

Suspense is created by the complex construction of Searles' narrative. Sylvie's memories are interspersed with present day happenings, but Sylvie's memories are not chronological and are often muddled. The reader is encouraged to try to piece together the narrative timeline and work out seemingly unconnected occurrences. Sylvie, as much as she wants to better understand her parents and the events leading up to their death, is also afraid to learn the truth and shatter her illusions about her family. She will start and then stop parts of her investigation, leaving the reader wanting more information or clarification.

We feel very tenderly for Sylvie--her childhood was tough, she was under a lot of pressure to be the opposite of her sister, her mother's time and effort were often taken away from her by all of the people in the Masons' lives coming for help. Sylvie had to be selfless. She had to be good. She was taught to respect her parents and not ask questions. Her very investigation seems to Sylvie like a betrayal of her parents, even if it's in pursuit of their murderer. Though sometimes unrealistically precocious, Sylvie is likeable, vulnerable, and wise beyond her years.

A word on Searles' prose style. As I said above, I was completely lost in this book. Searles has the rare gift of utterly disappearing from his text, and this is a wonderful thing. Some authors are intrusive: they insert themselves into the text, make asides, make their politics known, etc. Searles deftly constructs a narrative that unfolds seemingly by itself, without authorial guidance. Instead of employing hackneyed metaphors and similes, Searles uses such moments to insert anecdotes about Sylvie's life. Rather than saying, "Sylvie's heart beat quickly" he tells the story of Knothead, the bunny Sylvie's sister Rose had as child, fed carrots and living out in the backyard, wanted by Rose and then forgotten. It had a tiny, frenzied heart that went tic-tic-tic. Sylvie's heart beat like that. In this way Searles beautifully and unobtrusively builds up the characterization of his players and provides their backgrounds. I felt like I knew these people, I had become so wrapped up in their lives. The ending was so poignant that I wept.

At the heart of fantastical (the murders, the hauntings) is a troubled family, which can sometimes be the most frightening thing of all. How well do we know our mothers, fathers, sisters? Would we still love them if we truly knew them? These are the questions Searles poses with subtlety. Help For the Haunted is a beautiful , transporting novel, and I cannot recommend it highly enough.
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Showing 1-3 of 3 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Sep 26, 2013 12:35:33 PM PDT
Lisa Baker says:
Agree, I just loved it!!!

Posted on Sep 29, 2013 9:54:41 PM PDT
Manyjewels says:
Nice review. BTW I still see Loraine Warren on a paranormal show on the BIO channel. She's called in as a sensitive or medium consultant.

In reply to an earlier post on Oct 24, 2013 10:34:50 PM PDT
dizzyweasel says:
I really wish the books written about the Warrens were at all readable. So far I haven't found one without atrocious prose and superfluous exclamation points.
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