After the well-received The Well and the Mine (2009), Phillips’ second novel tackles ghosts, both real and metaphorical, on an archaeological dig in New Mexico.
Ren’s defining characteristic is not that she is a successful archaeologist or that she is the curator of pre-Columbian artifacts at a New Mexico museum. It is that she sees ghosts. Most frequently she sees the ghost of her brother Scott, dead from a car accident when she was a child 25 years ago. She also sees glimpses of people while on digs—people who lived 1,000 years ago and re-inhabit excavation sites, giving her the (professionally advantageous) opportunity to see brief snapshots of life as it was. Now Ren might have found the thing she’s been looking for—additional pottery from an ancient Puebloan (popularly called the Anasazi) she calls the Artist, whose extraordinary pottery she found years ago, but no more since. On site is fellow archaeologist Silas Cooper, smart and a little in awe of what he thinks of as Ren’s “intuition” about the artifacts they uncover. Little does he know that Ren’s artist, Lynay, is appearing on site along with her mother-in-law Non. The two ghosts seem vaguely aware of Ren as she and Silas uncover new sights and burial chambers, uncovering pots Lynay made. The narrative dips into the lives of Lynay and Non, a parrot handler, as Ren “sees” their lives unfold. In the less distant past Ren’s happy childhood before Scott died, and the shattered life she lived with her parents, who became kind of living ghosts, seems to cast a dark shadow over the burgeoning romance she has begun with Silas. The secret of all these ghosts, Lynay, Scott and the memories of happier times, make Ren almost unreachable. Unfortunately, these disparate threads vie for prominence, making the relationship between Ren and Silas less important than it needs to be for the end to resonate.
This uneven second novel offers fine details and character study, but it occasionally falls prey to overly ambitious plotting.