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The Spirit Photographer
One of the best parts of writing this blog is the lovely people I meet through its readership—people like you and you and… oh, definitely you. Thank you so much for reading and commenting and being part of my world.
Now I want to tell you about one of my readers—your… co-reader, I guess? Jon Michael Varese. He’s an author and the director of public outreach for The Dickens Project. In short, he’s a fellow word nerd, and he’s written a novel that I think you will love.
The Spirit Photographer is an enthralling story set just after the Civil War when the United States is trying to put itself back together and spiritualism was on the rise.
From the jacket copy:
Boston, 1870. Photographer Edward Moody runs a booming business capturing the images of the spirits of the departed in his portraits. He lures grieving widows and mourning mothers into his studio with promises of catching the ghosts of their deceased loved ones with his camera. Despite the whispers around town that Moody is a fraud of the basest kind, no one has been able to expose him, and word of his gift has spread, earning him money, fame, and a growing list of illustrious clients.
One day, while developing the negative from a sitting to capture the spirit of the young son of an abolitionist senator, Moody is shocked to see a different spectral figure develop before his eyes. Instead of the staged image of the boy he was expecting, the camera has seemingly captured the spirit of a beautiful young woman. Is it possible that the spirit photographer caught a real ghost? When Moody recognizes the woman in the photograph as the daughter of an escaped slave he knew long ago, he is compelled to travel from Boston to the Louisiana bayous to resolve their unfinished business—and perhaps save his soul. But more than one person is out to stop him…
That description is practically a checklist of things I love in fiction: turn-of-the-century hijinks, cities I’ve visited, a flim-flam man, a ghost, secrets and betrayal, voodoo, court proceedings, and a story woven from the facts of history. I devoured this book in two days—I needed to know the truth about the spirit in the photograph.
The characters are very vivid, and while I dislike some of them for being just awful people, they feel true and real, which makes them compelling. Everyone in this book has hidden depths and should not be taken lightly, especially Moody and his partner-in-crime Winter. Mrs. Lovejoy, the landlady, is a true delight.
Jon does a brilliant job of putting the reader right there when Moody and Winter venture into the Louisiana bayou. I swear I could feel the humidity and see the ripples in the water myself. Through his characters’ speech and his descriptions, he clearly illuminates the sometimes dramatic differences between the north and south during the crucial years just after the Civil War. “In New England, memories were locked behind brick walls and heavy doors. Here, the trees seemed to weep with them.”
The book kicks off with plenty of energy and intrigue, and the ending is very satisfying. In between, there are high-stakes conversations and action, as well as some difficult discussions of race relations and sexism that feel particularly apt, given our current politics. (Warning: There’s some tough language, so if you’re sensitive, keep this in mind.) The ramifications of the central plot echo through all of the characters’ lives and no one is left untouched by the beautiful and tragic experience of the spirit in the photograph.