Monday, January 27, 2014

Is anyone there?

The Séance is right in my wheelhouse: Historical, suspenseful, narrative within narrative, puzzle. I'm sure it registered on my reading brain when the book was published (2009), but luckily I never opened it because I got to listen instead! Australian John Harwood has written a deliciously old-fashioned novel that is satisfactorily atmospheric, true to its genre (really there weren't any secrets that weren't obvious, but oddly I liked this), and a thumping good adventure.

Constance Langdon was raised in a barren Victorian home, occupied by a beyond-distant father and a mother who never recovered from the death of Constance's two-year-old baby sister. She feels apart from them to the extent that she thinks she might be a foundling. Constance attempts to cure her mother of her overwhelming grief by taking her to several séances where she has no trouble seeing through the tricks of the mediums, but her mother takes the sessions to heart and soon commits suicide.

At the age of 21, Constance learns that she is an heiress -- a distant relative has left her Wraxford Hall, a dilapidated, some-say-haunted mansion deep in the country. The lawyer who finds and notifies Constance of the bequest tells her "sell the Hall unseen; or burn it to the ground ... but never live there." As proof of the Hall's horrors, he includes two diaries to convince her: his own narrative of what he knows of the Hall and that of Eleanor Unwin Wraxford, the wife of the last owner of Wraxford Hall, who disappeared -- along with her infant daughter -- the night 20 years ago when her husband, Magnus, died inside the disturbing electrified sarcophagus that an earlier Wraxford installed in the Hall's gallery. Magnus was only the latest Wraxford heir to die in mysterious circumstances.

These documents, of course, spur Constance toward Wraxford Hall (could she be a closer relative than the lawyer thinks?). She connects with the gentlemen of the Society of Psychical Research (one of whom broke up one of the séances Constance and her mother attended) to get to the bottom of the last night of Magnus' life and learn -- if possible -- what happened to Eleanor and her daughter.

(You think you know, don't you? And knowing [or possibly not] is one of the things I most enjoyed about this.)

The Victorian atmosphere seems genuine and genuinely scary (when Constance finds herself alone in Wraxford Hall on a dark and stormy night ... whew!), Constance and Eleanor are strong and interesting women, and the story is extremely satisfying. Wraxford Hall, perched at the edge of the haunted Monks' Wood (where unwary travelers enter at their peril), is evocatively described; as is a picture of it painted by John Montague when he was a young man which plays a crucial role.  And, as I said earlier, Harwood embraces the conventions of a Victorian ghost story, which means that some of the surprises aren't really, but there are plenty of uncertainties (and twists) that keep it highly entertaining.

The audiobook is narrated by three: Katherine Kellgren reads Constance's narrative, Simon Vance John Montague and Fiona Hardingham Eleanor Unwin. I'm very familiar with the first two, but this was my first listen to Hardingham. All are excellent, reading with the right amount of Victorian formality (reflecting the ornate language of the author) and mystery as each teases out their part of the story. Their extensive experience means that they can skillfully build suspense with pacing and vocal tension and their expertise adds considerably to the enjoyment of the novel. Hardingham does particularly well because of the nature of her narrative (to say more would spoil it).

I'd go so far as to say that The Séance is best encountered in audio. Listening forces me to slow down so that I don't miss all the ornate descriptions and language and deliciously extends the suspense to a toe-tingling point.

This audiobook was made available to me from its publisher, Blackstone Audio, through the Audiobook Jukebox's Sold Gold Reviewer program. Thanks for a great treat!

[A "séance conducted by John Beattie, Bristol, England, 1872, from the Eugène Rochas papers held at the American Philosophical Society Library." In the public domain, this photograph was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

The Séance by John Harwood
Narrated by Fiona Hardingham, Katherine Kellgren and Simon Vance
Blackstone Audio, 2014.  10:49

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