Saturday, September 21, 2013

After Life

After Life / Rhian Ellis
AmazonEncore, 2013, c2000.
310 p.

Another selection from Nancy Pearl's Book Lust Rediscoveries series, this is most suitable for RIP reading season!

It features a fictional setting drawn from the real life Lily Dale, a town of spiritualists and mediums. I've read about Lily Dale so was really intrigued by the premise of this novel: Naomi Ash and her mother Patsy (aka Madame Galina Ash) are only partially fake mediums and clairvoyants, and they live in Train Line, a town of spiritualists.

This book also takes its place in the firmament of great first lines:

"First, I had to get his body into the boat."

After this humdinger of a beginning, we go back to discover how and why Naomi is trying to dispose of a body. It's the 'why' of this murder that keeps us reading, trying to discover what could have happened to cause this to happen to Naomi and Peter, her sometime boyfriend.

Naomi is a complicated character. Stolid, aching for security, and rather surprised by her own mediumistic talent that appears in her late teens, she is always unsettled and uncertain of her place in life. She and her mother have been on their own for a long, long time -- they lived with Naomi's grandparents in New Orleans for much of her youth, but left town to strike out on their own after her grandmother died, ending up in Train Line.

At the time that the book opens, Naomi is living in a small apartment, with roommates, rather than with her mother. Her day job is maintaining the spiritualist community's library, and she also works as an after-school babysitter for a quiet, awkward child, a relationship that is extremely important to her.

There are a couple of references to librarians and library work in this novel, which of course I notice. One line that amused me was Naomi talking to Officer Peterson, who is investigating the discovery of a body:
He asked me what my job entailed, exactly, and said that a couple of people had told him that I might be a good person to talk to. Was it true that I saw a lot of the people who came through Train Line?
"Yes, I guess so. Though I don't necessarily look at them."
"What do you mean?"
"I mean I"m a librarian. I mostly only notice people who annoy me."

In every way, Naomi is very self-contained, and is holding in a lot of trauma and secrets. She is a difficult character, lacking social connections, disliking having to take the time to care about her appearance, mostly numb to feeling. She is not motivated to achieve anything or develop any particular skills or place for herself in the world. And yet the reader does feel empathy for her by the end.

She seems to have locked away most of her emotion around the death that is shared in the first few pages, but when a contractor starts development across the lake and uncovers a body -- the one she buried some years ago -- everything starts up again. She begins to become slightly unhinged as this discovery results in some suspicion falling on her, causing her relationship with the girl she babysits to be summarily discontinued. Her mother (unaware of Naomi's concerns) is also trying to use this discovery to restart her local radio show, and awkwardly for Naomi, she wants her help.

This book was fascinating in its depiction of a dysfunctional mother-daughter relationship that is not all good or all bad. There is still connection, but it's clear there is a fault line there, and after reading the last few chapters of this book I wondered how far Naomi had gone to protect her secrets.

Ellis is also wonderful at creating atmosphere, whether in New Orleans at the beginning and end of the book, or Train Line in between. The story slowly surrounded me, like the fog on the cover, and kept me pondering the fine line between truth and deception long after I finished reading.


One of the many things I enjoy about the Book Lust Rediscoveries titles are the forewords written by Nancy Pearl. In reading her introductory essay on After Life, not only did I get to hear a little bit about why she selected this book, and the reasons she thinks it is worth reading, I also discovered that Pearl collects quotes from her reading, like many of us do. I've kept a commonplace book myself for years and years, and just love gathering up the words that catch my attention.

When I read the following paragraph in the introduction to this book, it sounded oddly familiar... because I realized that I could say much the same thing!

The way an author uses language is always important to me in the books I choose to read. I realized a long time ago that, of all the books I've most enjoyed, the vast majority are characterized by their authors' ability to put words together in ways that surprise and enchant me, ways that cause me to look at the world as I never had before. Invariably, there are sentences and paragraphs in these books that I am compelled to read aloud to my husband (or whomever happens to be close by), post on the bulletin board in my office, and copy into the by now multi-volumed set of notebooks I have kept for years and years, which contain my favorite poems and lines from the books I've loved, to be read to myself when I need comforting or aloud, by my husband, to help me fall asleep.
This was a great book, one I really enjoyed, one that made me look closer. Great choice for a satisfying read -- and so nice to have a great book to follow up a read that wasn't so pleasant!


  1. Incisive review, Melwyk, as always. Naomi sounds like a fascinating character.

    1. She was a great character -- very complex, not easily grasped, but absolutely present as narrator. The more I think about this one the more questions I have!

  2. Interesting review. I just started Hilary Mantel's Beyond Black, also filled with partially honest mediums. It would be fun to compare the two novels. Have you read Beyond Black?

    1. No, I haven't -- didn't realize it had mediums in it -- now I'd like to read & compare. I hope it is isn't as huge as her other books though ;)

  3. Love the librarian quote. Sounds like a good read.

    1. Really interesting one, Shonna. I think you might like it. (and yes, couldn't resist sharing that quote)


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