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Shadows in Summerland Paperback – May 17, 2016
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From Publishers Weekly
In an America on the cusp of Civil War, Boston's bereaved are easy marks for con artist mediums. Photographer William Mumler stumbles upon an ideal partner in gulling his marks: Hannah, who appears to have a genuine gift for making the dead appear in photographs. Marriage to Hannah and financial success soon follow. But Hannah comes with troublesome baggage in the form of her stern mother, and success brings with it the ambitious and the greedy, all determined to have a share of William and Hannah's wealth for their ownâor to destroy them. Van Young's debut novel recalls an era no less gullible than the present one. Drawing on the lives of the historical Mr. and Mrs. Mumler, Van Young paints a picture of the possibilities of faith for those ambitious and amoral enough to exploit other people's pain, people who will not allow a moment of genuine mystery to distract them from the main chance. Van Young's prose skillfully illuminates his gothic tale of greed, obsession, and murder. Fans of his short fiction will be pleased. (May)\n
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For the most part, the book does a nice job of having it both ways: it shows or strongly suggests that most of the spirit photographers, including Mumler, and mediums were fakes, describing a number of techniques that they used in their performances—yet it equally strongly suggests that some people, chiefly Hannah Mumler, really could see ghosts. Even the ghosts themselves are given a chance to speak, in the chapters headed “Message Department,” a term Van Young picked up from Conant’s spiritualist journal, The Banner of Light.
The book’s many short chapters are narrated by Mumler, Hannah, Conant, and a few others in alternation. Van Young does a good job of differentiating their voices and making them interesting, but sometimes this becomes a bit too much of a good thing: I liked Hannah’s style best, but its very uniqueness and poetry made it hard to follow in places. I also was not quite sure what to make of some of the characters or what they thought of themselves. This was particularly true of Conant: Did she see herself as really communicating with spirits or not? Why did she decide to become involved with Mumler?
The milieu and characters are intriguing enough, and the writing (particularly in Hannah’s sections) good enough, to earn four stars—but I never could decide what it all added up to. The ending was ambiguous and, to me, unsatisfying.
Raymond Hardie, author of the new thriller No Man's Land.