The Girl Who Would Speak For The Dead, by Paul Elwork, is told in an absorbing, dreamy style, by a sympathetic narrator, but there are threads left hanging at the end that make it feel incomplete. First of all, don’t be fooled by the title and gothic-looking cover – this is not actually a supernatural thriller. The story was inspired by the real life Fox sisters of Hydesville NY, who helped spark the Spiritualism movement in the 1800s, by pretending very convincingly to be in contact with the dead.
In Elwork’s novel, Emily Stewart, just turning thirteen in the summer of 1925, discovers a strange ability to create a knocking sound with her ankle. It’s basically cracking a joint but she can do it without any visible movement, which I had a hard time imagining, but this is apparently very similar to what the Fox sisters did. After Emily uses it to scare her moody twin brother Michael one night, he springs on her the idea of tricking the neighborhood kids with fake seances complete with “spirit knocking”. Alarmingly intense about it, Michael sets up the first seance in the old tea house on their considerable property, choosing a painfully insecure kid named Albert as the victim. When that goes really well, Emily decides to dig through family photos and relics for ghost ideas, and finds an unexpected amount of good material.
The wealthy Stewart family is descended from a series of unhappy figures, beginning with the twins’ great-grandfather, who built a tunnel underneath the yard that stretches to the same tea house, in order to sneak out for liaisons with his illicit love, a family slave. Then there is his daughter Regina who fell to her death at sixteen, the uncle who drank himself away and disappeared, and Emily’s own father who died in WWI. Into the middle of this, comes a surprise visit by the mysterious Stan who is an old friend of Emily’s parents but whom her father never mentioned, and around whom her mother seems jittery.
Emily decides to ‘contact’ the ghost of Regina, and is so successful among the neighborhood kids that soon she and Michael are invited to ‘perform’ for a group of elderly ladies who all have their reasons for wanting to believe. Michael has an odd glint in his eye about the whole business, as if he’s just delighted to be scamming people. He’s also a relentless tormentor of the frightened boy Albert, who everyone knows has a monster of a father that barely leaves the house since his favorite son died in the war.
I think Elwork means for Michael to be the next unhappy character in the family, but it’s murky. He is definitely more angry than Emily about the death of their father. When the twins meet a phony seer among the elderly ladies, he invites Michael to join him, traveling the world with other faux mystics, etc, and Michael is very tempted by the idea of seeing the world. I thought that was odd, considering how wealthy the family is; I’m sure he’ll have every means of seeing the world anyway.
Emily, on the other hand, is sensitive and empathetic. The family stories she picks up and the emotions that come with them affect her strongly. She’s reluctant at first, but she falls under the spell of the old women’s gratefulness and her own imagination, sometimes feeling as if she’s sincerely connecting to their deceased husbands and family members. Elwork does this very well, so that every time she comes back out of a session, I felt like I came back from somewhere too. I wandered a few times if a real ghost was going to appear at some point, the suggestion of it was so good.
So Emily tells herself ‘what’s the harm, I’m helping people’, while as a reader, you’re just start waiting for the inevitable disaster. Then she is asked by Albert to help his father, and that’s where things go a little too far.
In the end, Elwork gives a nod to the Fox sisters by having Emily’s ‘powers’ continue to be accepted by the faithful older ladies. Aside from that little tidbit, the story ends almost abruptly, with nothing resolved between Stan and her mother, and unclear change, if any, in Michael’s disposition. So it’s hard to say why most of it happened at all, except as sort of a growing pain for Emily, who really was probably going to be fine anyway, out of all of them. Still, it’s an enjoyable read for Elwork’s pleasingly sleepy pacing and compelling atmosphere. Check out the story of the Fox sisters as well, if you don’t know it; it’s pretty interesting.