THE TOTEM by Kevin  Zarem


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A man in present-day Wisconsin has an apparent link to a mid-19th-century man who sought revenge against his mother’s killers in Zarem’s (Entangled, 2007, etc.) psychological tale.

After Stephan Shores falls and knocks himself out, he has two vivid memories—his beloved golden retriever, Daisy, is dead, and his friend Samantha “Sam” Torrance has Hodgkin’s disease. Post-injury, he sees that Daisy is alive and Sam is cancer-free. Later, however, he awakens from a coma. It seems he was actually in a car accident, and the life he knew returns (Sam with Hodgkin’s and Daisy gone). One cryptic directive remains in his mind: contact Dr. Gaius Bjornson and find the angel bone pendant. With Sam’s help, Stephan tracks down Gaius, a psychiatrist who specializes in regression therapy. Gaius talks about an LSD trip he had that included an angel-shaped pendant made of bone, which Gaius believes has spiritual significance. He also believes that Stephan somehow learned about the pendant’s location while in his coma. Sure enough, Stephan dreams of Isabelle Abano, a woman in 1855 who evidently gave the pendant to her 10-year-old son, Ulysses. Stephan soon seems to be living Ulysses’ past life, when the then-grown Ulysses wanted to avenge Isabelle’s murder. Perhaps, in the present day, Stephan will discover where the pendant is buried.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Zarem’s novel can be dizzying. While the shifts between 2017 and 1855 (or 1866) are precise and easy to follow, certain events in Stephan’s life are less consistent. For example, throughout the book, the protagonist is intermittently disoriented either from an intense dream or, it would seem, lingering effects of his head injury. This will surely lead readers to question what, if anything, is truly taking place. The author, however, skillfully manages the complex plotlines by, for one, firmly establishing characters and settings. This alleviates jarring narrative turns, like when the story suddenly shifts from Stephan’s first-person narration in the present day to Ulysses’ in the 19th century. It’s an extended sequence that establishes a new perspective and setting before another narrative shift occurs. This further allows for prolonged, rewarding scenes between characters. A highlight is the strengthening bond between Stephan and the doctor’s son, who has a cognitive impairment but somehow connects with Stephan through a psychic ability (e.g., drawing pictures of future events). There’s also a sublimely understated romance between Stephan and Sam; although his love for her is unrequited, their shared moments are often tender. “I roll my head down onto her shoulder,” he muses. “The nape of her neck smells wonderful, like fresh rain and gingerbread soap. I want to hide away in this little nook.” The book’s historical backdrop is remarkable, with notable references to post–Civil War life in 1866 and, in a later twist, the surprise appearance of a historical figure. Though the novel concludes with a good deal of resolution, it leaves a few open-ended elements.

An intricate paranormal story that draws in readers with grounded characters.

Publisher: iUniverse
Program: Kirkus Indie
Review Posted Online:


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