The Spirit Photographer by Jon Michael Varese

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The Spirit Photographer by Jon Michael Varese

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Category: Historical Fiction
Rating: 3/5
Reviewer: Rebecca Foster
Reviewed by Rebecca Foster
Summary: In post-Civil War America, Edward Moody brings comfort to the bereaved by fabricating family photographs in which the ghost of a departed loved one appears. But his own loss looms large, and he must undertake a quest to the New Orleans bayou to find out what really happened. This all sounds rather more exciting than it actually is.
Buy? No Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 320 Date: May 2018
Publisher: Gerald Duckworth & Co Ltd
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 9780715653005

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Jon Michael Varese's debut novel was inspired by the life story of the real-life father of spirit photography, William H. Mumler. His fictional stand-in here is Edward Moody, who was a battlefield photographer under Matthew Brady and now owns his own photography studio in Boston. Moody is dismissive of spiritualism, yet considers himself to be doing a service to the bereaved by fabricating family photographs in which the ghost of a departed loved one appears. This involves getting hold of an image of the loved one and superimposing it on the negative being developed, so that it seems to appear hazily in the background. Looking back from today's high-tech perspective, it's hard to see how anyone could have been fooled, but suffering people in desperate situations often want to believe; the same goes for séances.

In 1870 Moody is paid a visit by abolitionist Senator James Garrett and his wife Elizabeth. Their little boy, William, died of a fever 18 years ago, and Elizabeth wants to see if Moody can capture his image alongside a photograph of the ageing couple. Instead, the image that appears is of a coloured woman – and not just anyone, but an escaped slave named Isabelle, who was Moody’s sweetheart and left him in 1852 after writing him a mysterious note. Does her ghostly appearance in the photograph mean that she is dead? And, either way, what happened to her on that day when she disappeared nearly two decades ago? What Moody doesn't know is that Isabelle was the Garretts' servant girl at the time of William's death.

A few months prior to the Garretts' appointment, Moody hired an assistant, Joseph Winter, a coloured war veteran. Winter was able to blackmail Moody into hiring him because he knows the secret of spirit photography and, indeed, has made his own spirit photographs. If he doesn't get the job he'll expose Moody as a fraud. Soon we learn that Winter was also acquainted with Isabelle and knows where to find her – even if it's just her ghost: at her old plantation, Bellevoix in New Orleans, Louisiana. They skip town just in time, too: Inspector Bolles is currently building his case against Moody, with Senator Garrett's help.

The idea of the spirits of the dead speaking out about their mistreatment in life is one that feels familiar from George Saunders' Lincoln in the Bardo, while the mixture of Civil War battles and later shenanigans reminded me of Steven Price's By Gaslight. Like the latter, The Spirit Photographer is too long and melodramatic, often requiring a major suspension of disbelief on the reader's part. The novel is capably written and plotted, but doesn't stand out in the sea of historical fiction or live up to its exciting premise. What with Varese's academic background in Victorian literature – he wrote his PhD thesis on Charles Dickens and is the Director of Public Outreach for The Dickens Project at the University of California – he may have been better off writing this as nonfiction.

Further reading suggestions: The American Civil War by John Keegan and Sherlock Holmes - The Spirit Box by George Mann.

Buy The Spirit Photographer by Jon Michael Varese at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Spirit Photographer by Jon Michael Varese at Amazon.co.uk


Buy The Spirit Photographer by Jon Michael Varese at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Spirit Photographer by Jon Michael Varese at Amazon.com.

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