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THE SÉANCE by John Harwood

THE SÉANCE

By John Harwood

Pub Date: Feb. 3rd, 2009
ISBN: 978-0-15-101203-9
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

The ambience and paraphernalia of the Victorian ghostly tale are knowingly channeled in Australian author Harwood’s serpentine second novel (The Ghost Writer, 2004).

The book consists of five interconnected narratives, each of which glides assuredly between a mysterious past and a troubled present. Harwood begins with Bloomsbury maiden Constance Langton’s account of her misguided attempt to ease the sufferings of her mother (sunk in mourning over the early death of Constance’s younger sister Alma) by arranging a séance, which fails—spectacularly—to bring enlightenment or comfort. We will hear further, and much more, from Constance, but not until family lawyer John Montague has (at some length) confided the strange history of Wraxford Hall, the remote Suffolk mansion which Constance has inherited—in which, Montague strongly advises, she must never reside. All this extended exposition leads to the journal of Eleanor Unwin, who married into the star-crossed Wraxford family, reputedly killed her husband and either did away as well with their young daughter or absconded with the child, for neither was ever seen again. The many similarities between Constance’s and Eleanor’s circumstances excite the heiress’s overstimulated imagination, deepen her attorney’s fears and attract the attention of the (historical) Society for Psychical Research, whose (presumably fictional) agent Vernon Raphael sets out to solve these interlocking mysteries. Though Harwood has mastered all the particulars of this hardy genre, the decision to swaddle his story in multiple layers of narrative leaves the reader often struggling to remember who intermittently introduced characters are and how they’re related to one another. Nevertheless, the dependable tropes of recurring storms, long-held secrets, a villainous mesmerist who also dabbles in alchemy, even a menacing suit of armor, all work their traditional magic, and the reader remains hooked. Further treats lurk for those who spot clear allusions to genre authors Wilkie Collins and M.R. James—not to mention outright appropriation from Shirley Jackson’s 20th-century classic The Haunting of Hill House.

Perfect fare for a standard dark and stormy night.