SELENE OF THE SPIRITS by Melissa Pritchard


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paper 0-86538-095-3 Moving, deeply satisfying fiction, set with great exactitude in 1870s England, that chronicles the turbulent romance of an ambitious, scientist with a gifted young medium. Sir William Herapath, well married and already a respected member of the scientific establishment, is first drawn to the frank young psychic Selene Cook by her reputed powers. Convinced that some kernel of truth lies behind the flummery associated with spiritualism (dismissed by many as mere parlor tricks and smoke), Herapath lets himself be talked into launching a lengthy investigation of Selene’s powers. She moves into his mansion, where, largely ignored by his moody, death-obsessed wife (who has just embraced the wonderfully Victorian fad of taxidermy), Selene begins to seduce Herapath. At the start, she’s simply desperate to escape from her poor, seedy family and make a name for herself. Herapath quickly discovers that her most spectacular gifts (such as manifesting a spirit form while tied to a chair) are false. Only later, after the two have begun an affair, does he discover that she really commands psychic powers; she is, for instance, unerringly able to read people’s futures in their faces. The affair ends disastrously: in an attempt to preserve his reputation, Herapath renounces both the pregnant Selene and his likely discoveries. None of this is entirely surprising. Still, Pritchard (The Instinct for Bliss, 1995, etc.), thanks to the complex life of her characters—and to her sparring but effective use of period diction and detail—manages to make it all seem new. Selene’s last days, and Herapath’s long struggle to deal with his guilt, are rendered with considerable power and emotional resonance. The bittersweet mysticism of the conclusion seems especially apt. A distinctive achievement, both as a historical novel and a romance. Fit to stand on the shelf with Fowles’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman and Byatt’s Possession. (Author tour; TV satellite tour)

Pub Date: Nov. 16th, 1998
ISBN: 0-86538-094-5
Page count: 230pp
Publisher: Ontario Review
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15th, 1998


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