'The Times Literary Supplement' reviews 'The Spirit Photographer'

September 14, 2018

This article originally appeared in the September 14, 2018 edition of The Times Literary Supplement. Review written by Gerri Kimber.

The Spirit Photographer book cover

320pp. Duckworth Overlook. £16.99.
978 0 7156 5300 5

There is not a dud word in this extraordinary debut novel by Jon Michael Varese. The protagonist, the Boston spirit photographer Edward Moody, is a loose depiction of the real-life photographer William H. Mumler, who practised a similar profession in the same city at the same time – the late 1860s – when it was widely believed that photography could reveal the ghostly form of a living sitter’s deceased relative. One of Mumler’s most notorious photographs depicted Mrs Abraham Lincoln with the supposed apparition of her dead husband behind her. A scandal ensued and though a trial eventually acquitted Mumler of deception, his reputation never recovered.

The Spirit Photographer is set against the backdrop of one of the most turbulent periods in American history – the Reconstruction era – following the end of the Civil War, the abolition of slavery, the declaration of the Fifteenth Amendment, and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan. The South is still in denial at the destruction of its way of life, while the North tries – and frequently fails – to use legal means to safeguard the rights of freed African Americans. Varese seamlessly weaves all of this historical material into his murky, Southern Gothic tale which takes Moody and his black associate, Joseph Winter, from Boston to the narrow back streets of St Louis, searching for the truth about Moody’s former lover, Isabelle, once nursemaid to Boston’s Senator Garrett’s beloved only son William, who died tragically at the age of three. Garrett’s wife Elizabeth, consumed with guilt over dark secrets in her own past that are not revealed until the end of the novel, decides to sit for Moody, in the vain hope of seeing the phantom-like presence of little William in a spirit photograph. What is revealed, however, when Moody develops the glass negative, shocks not only Elizabeth, but even Moody and Winter, and most of all her husband, potentially threatening the very foundations of government.

There are echoes of Wilkie Collins in Varese’s deft handling of this material, with snippets of reportage maintaining the narrative’s vitality. Even more prominent are the connections to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, from the steamboat Sotto Voce, which ferries Moody and Winter to the dark heartland of American slavery, to the voodoopractising Henriette La Jaune, who reigns supreme in her remote, swamp-infested Southern landscape, a place where the very shadows cry out in horror.