A sprawling, intricately plotted debut novel that combines post–Civil War history with a kind of ghost story.
The title character is one Edward Moody ((based on a real man named William Mumler), who worked for Civil War photographer Mathew Brady. Moody was devastated by the horrors he witnessed, and after the war he takes up spirit photography with great success. Clients sit for a photo portrait in Moody’s Boston studio, and when the negative is developed, the image of a departed loved one somehow emerges in the background. Sen. James Garrett, a prominent abolitionist, reluctantly accompanies his wife, Elizabeth, for a sitting: She hopes to make a spiritual connection with their son, who died years before at age 3. But—shockingly—the image that surfaces behind the Garretts is that of a young woman of color named Isabelle, who, it turns out, was involved with both Moody and the senator. Moody is determined to find out what happened to Isabelle and launches a search; he is accompanied by Joseph Winter, an escaped slave–cum–Union Army veteran who has become his assistant and who also knew Isabelle. With the police on their heels—Moody is accused of being a charlatan—the two end up in the Louisiana bayou, where they begin to learn the truth about Isabelle and what she left behind. The writing is vivid, even lyrical at times, and the passages on Reconstruction—encapsulated in the prickly friendship between Garrett and the more conservative Sen. Dovehouse—are illuminating. The deep divide in the country circa 1870 is vaguely reminiscent of our own time. But the novel overheats, especially in the endless bayou section, and there are a few too many mystics and mediums on hand. Plus, the endless twists and turns become wearing.
In part a meditation on belief, the book is mostly engaging despite being overlong and occasionally preposterous.