Who doesn’t love a good ghost story, right? The unknown is always a little chilling and intriguing, especially when it has to do with ghosts. That’s what I thought I was getting myself into when I read this fantastic review in The Guardian by Sarah Ditum about Sara Flannery Murphy’s debut novel, The Possessions. Ditum enthusiastically starts her review saying, “Sara Flannery Murphy unspools a creepingly clever ghost story that encompasses thriller, horror and literary fiction with seductive swagger.” As soon as I read that line, I was convinced! I ran straight to the library and checked out the novel. I will say, the first paragraph of the novel is fantastic and I hate to admit it, encompassing. You want to know who Patrick is, why this woman is wearing a deceased woman’s lipstick and more importantly, what on Earth is going on?
Before I start with the review, let’s get to know the author a little bit. Sara Flannery Murphy grew up in Arkansas and received her MFA in creative writing at Washington University in St. Louis. She studied library science in British Columbia. She lives in Oklahoma with her husband and son. The Possessions is her first novel. There isn’t that much for me to go by with that description that’s on her website, but I did find an interesting interview with her in Interview Magazine, in which she discusses in detail how she came up with the idea of The Possessions and other fun facts. For example, the Elysian Society is inspired by Victorian spiritualism.
Now, let’s get to The Possessions – in an unnamed city, Edie (short for Eurydice – hah, remember my review of the incredible graphic novel, Asterios Polyp and how there is a running joke on how the Greek tragedy of Orpheus and Eurydice is super overused, well it’s used here) works as a body at the Elysian Society, a private service that allows grieving clients to reconnect with loved ones who have passed away. The bodies who work at the Elysian Society are primarily female (there is some prejudice against the males that work at the Elysian Society, one character scornfully says, “Such a disadvantage. They don’t have the training for this work that women do.”), and wear white, paper-thin clothing. They sit before clients who have chosen them to swallow a pill known as a lotus, while also wearing the possessions from the dead, and in doing so, summon a person of the customer’s choosing. Each client gets around 30 minutes with their loved one before the body comes back into consciousness. There are rules at the Elysian Society, including no victims of murder being brought forth and no subjects who committed suicide. Edie has been working at the Elysian Society for five years, an unusual and frankly disturbing amount of time to work at this type of job.
It’s a pretty cool premise, right? In this world, the dead are not entirely dead. They can come back with the help of a body, possessions, and a hefty pill that leaves the consciousness of the body inactive while the ghost takes over as host of the body. It’s tricky of course, most people cannot handle this type of job. Being a vessel is not only disturbing and exhausting, it’s dangerous. Bodies run the risk of either becoming possessed by one of the spirits OR they can be harassed by one of the clients that wants more than just 30 minutes in a controlled room at the Elysian Society. This also presents a problem for bodies who want more money. They start to meet with clients outside of the Elysian Society walls in their homes, acting as their loved ones, even having sex with them. Due to these factors, it’s a job that’s rather transient. People work for weeks and then suddenly disappear or people work for months, disappear and then suddenly come back for some quick cash, which is why it’s so strange that Edie has been at this particular job for so long. She’s never had a break. She’s worked consistently for five years and even has regular clients that have been working with her for years. Her success is the result of careful detachment: she seeks refuge in the lotuses’ anesthetic effects and distances herself from making personal connections with her clients.
This all changes when the narrator is chosen to work with Patrick Braddock, whose wife, Sylvia Braddock, has mysteriously passed away under questionable circumstances. Right off the bat, Patrick breaks the rules of the Elysian Society by sending Edie the possessions of Sylvia at her personal home instead of to the company and by also sending her a nude picture of Sylvia. Edie accepts all of these transgressions and is only more intrigued with the beautiful couple’s life. What begins as curiosity turns into a obsession for Edie. Her carefully guarded life is ripped open as she starts to break her own rules and pursues Patrick, moving deeper into his life and summoning Sylvia outside the Elysian Society’s walls. The lines start to blur the more Edie summons Sylvia, as Sylvia is not ready to pass on. Edie starts to realize that Sylvia is starting to possess her.
There’s also several mysteries in the novel. The first involving the death of Hopeful Doe – an unknown, young woman who was found murdered in a abandoned building. Edie slowly realizes that Hopeful Doe was an ex-body from the Elysian Society and works with other bodies to figure out what happened. The second mystery, what happened to Sylvia Braddock? Then there is the biggest mystery of all, who is Edie? The novel is written in first person from Edie’s perspective, so we only see her side of everything, however we never really figure out who she is – who is she? Why is she working in the Elysian Society? Why does she isolate herself and hide in others? What is her real name (we never find this out actually…)? This is the biggest mystery that’s teased out until the very end of the novel.
There’s also an ethical issue with this entire profession. Do the dead want to be brought back? The case of the O’Brien’s where a husband is meeting behind his wife’s back and bringing back their mutual friend, Margaret, whom he always loved. The feeling we find out, was not mutual and his wife always knew of her husband’s feelings. In fact, when his wife finds out about his secret meetings with Edie, she asks, “I wonder if it bothers her, that he’s bringing her back,” it seems that there’s no way of knowing if the person who’s being brought forth would be willing. It could always be considered a selfish act, even if it’s well intentioned and out of grief.
In an interview with Murphy, she’s stated, “As much as you want to recapture everything that you had, maybe it’s better to yourself and to the person you lost to let that ending remain an ending, and not bring it back in a way that can end up being unnatural or forced.” There is no bringing back the past, and there’s really no way of bringing back someone who has passed away, no matter how much it hurts to have that person gone. This novel really grapples with that ethical issue, yet at the end of the novel, this isn’t resolved. In fact, Edie’s decision at the end to open what sounds like another Elysian Society is completely disregarding this ethical issue. It’s just starting another cycle that will probably end up being problematic again.
If I’m focusing too much on plot in this review, it’s because in retrospect, there is a lot going on at the same time. There are three large mysteries that beg to be solved and when they are it’s rather anti-climactic. There’s some investigating on the part of Edie, who literally has no life, but everyone just admits to everything very blatantly and unrealistically. There’s a build up to something grand and then it’s just written out and that’s the end. The mystery is over. It’s rather bizarre. I will say that I really did enjoy reading the book, it’s incredibly engrossing and sexy, and you do want to know what happened to Edie, Sylvia and Hopeful Doe, but the end is incredibly lacking. I’m not sure if the journey was worth the payoff. It is definitely a premise that could result in a whole world, much like Harry Potter has it’s own world. It’s different yet familiar enough that I can see multiple stories coming out of this unknown world where spirits can still be summoned. I was a lot more interested in the Elysian Society than any other part of the novel. I think this work, although very promising and fun to read, could have been worked on more. I definitely do read this novel as a first novel, but that’s not to say that the author’s future work won’t be more complete. It felt like everything just wrapped up very abruptly and suddenly and now we’re just supposed to be happy for Edie, which felt very strange and not true to the first half of the novel.
I will say that the novel is very sexy, in that there’s a lot of sex and sexual tension. The whole possessing a body and watching a body become possessed can only lead to sex, so it was interesting how sexual this novel turned out to be…I definitely was not expecting that even though the cover has purple lips and the opening paragraph is incredibly graphic. I will say that all of the sexual scenes were very well written and respectful, it wasn’t trashy at all, which I did appreciate. It was a definitely a change from the typical novels that I read in this book review blog.
Also, there’s a lot of play with the word possession, because the novel could either be about the bodies being possessed by ghosts or about all of the possessions that each body has to accumulate in order to summon the spirit of the dead. There’s also the play with possessing a person, whether that be a husband, or a wife – people try to treat people like possessions, even in death in this novel. I absolutely loved the fact that possession is also so close to obsession, as so many characters in this novel are obsessed with someone, so that was fun to read.
So, would I recommend this novel? I’m not really sure…it was rather dark and I didn’t care for the end result, so I’m honestly not sure. If you read the quotes above and this sounds intriguing, go for it. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed, but I think going forward I might step away from ghost stories that aren’t really ghost stories.