Turner’s debut novel offers a meandering journey through one woman’s life and family history.
Since girlhood, Chaela Hartwright has had an uncanny connection to the spirit world. As the oldest child in a family full of colorful personalities, she eagerly absorbs her relatives’ stories of her ancestors—immigrants to Canada from Scotland. But Chaela, the family’s “keeper of secrets,” is a member of a clan that holds “séances with the expectations of communicating with the spirits,” and her ghostly kin sometimes insert themselves into her life in often unwanted ways. After she enters adulthood, she has children of her own, becomes a college instructor in Montreal, and eventually moves to communist China to teach English. Finally, after decades of being troubled by her ghosts, Chaela discovers a way to exorcise them once and for all. The phantoms in Turner’s debut are the spirits of the dead, but they’re also far more than that. In this story, “memories are like ghosts” and Chaela must come to terms with both her own experiences and those of her family if she hopes to move forward. As such, the novel’s main subject is the sometimes unbearable weight of memory on people’s lives. In keeping with the supernatural theme, the story has a gauzy quality, which is often effective, as when Chaela pays a spooky visit to her two reclusive, cat-hoarding aunts, but can occasionally be confusing; for example, it’s hard to keep all of Chaela’s similarly named family members straight. Many characters, whether living or dead, never take on a clear shape; readers can see their general outlines, but they remain indistinct. That said, many of Chaela’s adventures are compelling, particularly the time she spends in China during the Tiananmen Square protests. Ultimately, however, there’s little tension in this story, despite its many vivid moments.
An evocative but somewhat disjointed novel that examines how the past shapes the present.