by John Harwood
328 pages; Mariner Books (review copy)
Review by S.P. Miskowski
The Séance is John Harwood's second novel. It is every bit as cleverly crafted and meticulously researched as The Ghost Writer. In fact, The Séance is great fun. If it lacks the final, emotional kick that left readers of the first novel breathless and dizzy, blame the formal structure for driving a slight wedge between the reader and the author's most exciting character.
In The Ghost Writer Harwood made excellent use of letters over great distances, and the ways in which written correspondence can both reveal and conceal crucial information. He skillfully constructed certain relationships based entirely on these epistles, developed across many miles and many years.
The Séance takes a similar, epistolary approach. But here the form is rigid. Instead of punctuating the narrative with bits of new information, the journals and letters written by various characters divide the novel into distinct sections. There's nothing wrong about this approach. It's just that the first character introduced is by far the most interesting, and we lose her point of view on page 48 and do not return to it until page 236.
Between these widely separated sections--which comprise the history of Constance Langton--we meet a woman in peril and the family solicitor who loves and wants to protect her from a husband who may be wicked or simply terribly misunderstood. These characters, and the dangers they face as they are drawn into a web of supernatural inquiry led by a talented mesmerist, are far less sympathetic and less bewitching than Constance Langton. And the story played out among these characters--although the mystery at the heart of it is expertly drawn--is not as delightful as the first promising pages of the novel.
"If my sister Alma had lived, I should never have begun the séances."
So begins Constance Langton's journal in January 1889. With these words the young woman, who was five years old when her younger sister died of scarlet fever, launches into an explanation of why and how she came to be a sort of spirit guide. Her stated desire is to alleviate her mother's anguish over the loss of her favorite child. By forming a link, however false or real, between the grieving mother and the soul of her departed little girl, Constance raises her own significance and gains the attention she has always craved from a disinterested parent.
Delving into the paranormal societies of the day, Constance inadvertently triggers a greater separation between her mother, who is desperate to believe, and her father, a calculating man of science whose scorn for the occult is only one of many complaints against the women in his family.
The bulk of the novel relates the unhappy life and apparently cursed marriage of Eleanor Unwin to a renowned mesmerist, a charismatic man who may or may not have come into his family estate by nefarious means. Eleanor's trials are faithfully recounted by way of a journal, retained for years by a solicitor who suffered an excruciating personal loss. The mystery at the heart of the subtly connected, parallel stories may shed light on several family questions, which have plagued Constance since childhood. These complications and their pay-offs have the quality of distant, though exquisite variations on a theme. Yet I kept longing to return to Constance and her adventures among the half-crazy, half-opportunistic mediums and charlatans of 1880s London.
A thoroughly well written tale of mortal fear, greed and exploitation, and the soul-crushing compromises expected of young women in the 19th century, The Séance establishes one certainty: John Harwood is a writer of exceptional ability, who handles the psychological and supernatural implications of the ghost story with a bright and critical mind.