Does proof of the spirit world exist?
It’s 1918. Americans roam the streets in gauze masks to ward off the deadly Spanish influenza, the government ships young men overseas to the front lines, and neighbor accuses neighbor of spying for the enemy. In this stew of fear and confusion, sixteen-year-old Mary Shelley Black watches as desperate mourners flock to séances and “spirit photographers” for comfort. She has never believed in ghosts, but during her bleakest moment she’s forced to rethink her entire way of looking at life and death, for her first love – a boy who died in battle – returns to her as a spirit. Why has he returned? And what does he want from Mary Shelley?
Illustrated with haunting early-twentieth century photographs, this is a tense, romantic story set in a time eerily like our own.
The story begins with a long train journey from Portland to San Diego. Mary Shelley is moving to live with her aunt because her father was arrested and her mother had passed away some time ago. The train stinks of onions (widely believed at the time to prevent flu), and everyone is hiding behind their masks, mortally afraid of every cough and sneeze. Mary Shelley passes the time reading letters from her sweetheart Stephen, who has gone to war in Europe. As an opening chapter, it’s a well thought out way to set the scene and atmosphere of paranoia without heavy exposition.
As the book continues, we meet her Aunt Eva, who lives with her pet magpie, Oberon, works in the local shipyard and seems to spend the rest of her time making onion soup to ward off the flu. Eva likes Stephen’s older brother Julius, a spirit photographer who Mary Shelley already clearly dislikes and believes is a fraud. Mary Shelley meets Mr Darning, another local photographer who specialises in debunking spirit photography, though has so far failed to find any trickery in Julius’ studio.
After getting to meet the characters, we learn that Stephen has been killed in battle, and this is where the book really gets started. As the back cover says, Stephen starts to appear as a ghost to Mary Shelley, seemingly terrified of birds. The rest of the book depicts Mary Shelley becoming increasingly more determined and desperate to help Stephen to rest in peace, with some decent twists and turns along the way. A lot of the characters turn out to be not who they seem at first, and the final revelations are not ones I could have guessed.
When I first read the back cover, I half expected this book to be a silly romance between a young girl and the ghost of her boyfriend, but I’m happy to report that it’s far more interesting and worth reading than that. It draws interesting parallels with modern life – the irrational beliefs people have in placebo remedies for fatal illnesses; how shellshock, or post-traumatic stress disorder as it is now called, is seen as something to be ashamed of, rather than a mental illness that needs proper treatment and support.
One thing that isn’t so convincing in the book is the ages of Mary Shelley and Aunt Eva. Mary Shelley seems far too mature for her age of sixteen, whereas Eva reminds me of my Nan, not a woman in her mid-twenties as the text states. Perhaps people become more mature in desperate times of war and illness, but I’m not completely convinced by the book’s portrayal. That’s not to say they’re bad characters though.
The novel is apparently aimed at ages 12 and up, though I’d say it’s a little too gruesome for that age. It feels more like an adult novel to me than what would normally be in the YA category.
Reviewed by Keith