Once in a while a novel comes along that exerts a certain power over you that has a presence, if you will. After Life, by debut novelist Rhian Ellis, is such a book. Like a gateway to the spirit world Ellis describes in After Life, this quiet, brilliant novel beckons the reader to enter a strange and wonderful world where it's often hard to distinguish between what is real and what is not.
The novel holds the reader captive from the beginning: First, I had to get his body into the boat. . . . What follows, however, is not your average psychological thriller. After Life has the allure of a suspense novel, but one with writing so exquisite, it defies categorization.
Born in New Orleans, Naomi Ash is raised by her mother, a medium who later comes to be known as Mother Galina. As a child, Naomi participates in her mother's brand of spiritualism playing the ghost in seances, tapping on walls, whispering into intercoms, and generally helping to deceive bereaved visitors. When New Orleans becomes inhospitable to their business, Naomi and her mother flee to Train Line, an unusual community of spiritualists and mediums in western New York state, a Victorian ghost town of sorts. It is there, in a dilapidated gingerbread cottage, that Naomi comes of age and begins to discover her own gifts as a medium. Then she falls in love with Peter Morton, a young graduate student passing through town, who forever changes Naomi's life in ways she could never have foreseen.
When Peter's body is discovered, Naomi is forced to come to terms with a tragic incident that occurred ten years ago one that haunts Naomi, but that can perhaps take her back, albeit by a circuitous route, to her true self.
Not since Elizabeth McCracken's remarkable 1996 debut The Giant's House: A Romance has an author shown such promise. Like McCracken, Ellis has written an original, richly imagined novel. Her ability to craft the perfect sentence, evoke a sense of place, and explore the weighty questions of life while pulling the reader along with a gripping narrative is an extraordinary feat one Ellis accomplishes flawlessly and with ease. Katherine Wyrick lives in Little Rock, Arkansas.