Literary Mediums & Politics: Rhian Ellis’s After Life and J. K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy

Storm, July 22, 2013

Storm, July 22, 2013

I meant to write my monthly “Mirabile Does Middlebrow” post last night, but I haven’t read many middlebrow books this summer.

I’ve read quite a few classics instead:  Horace, Balzac, and Elizabeth Spencer.

On Monday night I had a middlebrow novel in the car, but we got caught in a storm that precluded my reading anything:  flashing “disco-light” lightning lit up the sky, high winds crepitated, and dense pellets of rain fell.

“Don’t you want to pull over?” I asked.

“No!  I’m concentrating.”

I am seldom frightened of storms.  I am the kind of person who goes casually down to the basement only if the sirens go off, and then only if the TV forecasters take cover.  I read during storms.

But when we got home, I was shaken.  I got into bed and hoped to get lost in a novel.  I read part of a novel by Vita Sackville-West that wasn’t good but wasn’t bad enough to be middlebrow.

That is the way it’s been all summer.

Books are splayed on the Adirondack chair.

Don’t take me literally.

I don’t leave books out in the rain.

Sometimes I am a reading snob, sometimes I am not a snob.

I haven’t read any Viragos this summer.  (I know:  the 40th anniversary.)

I read 22 pages of Herman Wouk’s War and Remembrance (recommended by The Wall Street Journal).

And so I have decided to write about one literary novel and one “high” middlebrow novel:   Rhian Ellis’s After Life, a brilliant novel about a medium who kills her boyfriend; and J. K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy, a novel about the town of Pagford and several characters who are affected by a vacancy on the council caused by a death.

I was hoping to find a third, but these will have to do.

After Life by Rhian EllisAfter Life by Rhian Ellis.  This remarkable literary novel slipped under the radar when it was published in 2000.  It has been reissued in the Nancy Pearl “Book Lust Rediscoveries” series published by Amazon.

The narrator, Naomi Ash, a medium, killed her boyfriend 10 years ago.  The novel begins with her painful memory of dragging the body into a boat, rowing on  the dark lake, and finally burying the body in a grassy clearing.

The dark, lyrical prose is of such transcendent beauty that literature fans will admire it as well as mystery fans, and in fact I’m not sure this is a mystery:  it is more a story about mediums and fakery.   Born in New Orleans, Naomi and her mother, who is also a medium, have lived for years in Train Line, New York, a town known for spiritualism and mediums.  Train Line is based on Lily Dale, New York, a town near Chautauqua (I have been there).

After her boyfriend’s death, Naomi represses her psychic skills.  She is suicidal.  She works at a convenience store, and she is a person who has never imagined herself working at a mundane job.

Those were terrible, dark months.  I worked at the Ha-Ha, a convenience store in Wallamee during the day, and plotted my suicide at night.  Every morning I rode my bike the five and a half miles around the north end of the lake, past groups of kids with lunch boxes waiting for the school bus, and past flocks of ducks flapping through cattails, and past gas stations and real estate offices opening for the day.  I rode through most of the winters, too, thought when there was a lot of snow I got a ride from Teeny Lawrence, my neighbor, who worked similar hours as I did at a doctor’s office not far from the convenience store.  I preferred to ride my bike, though.  I wasn’t very good at small talk.

Her mother works as a “material medium”:  Naomi describes “the floating trumpets, the ectoplasm, the spirit rappings:  all this she said was theater.”  Naomi herself started working as a medium in high school, trying mainly to get attention from her peers. But then she had real visions, and eventually registered as a medium.  She shares a house with two other mediums.  She gives readings, and now has a job in the spiritualism library.

When Naomi’s boyfriend’s body turns up, her mother get involved as a psychic with the police.  Terrified, Naomi works with her.

Fascinating book.  I loved it!

200px-The_Casual_VacancyJ. K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy Like everyone else, I was riveted by the news that Rowling has written a mystery under a pseudonym. I decided, however, to read The Casual Vacancy instead, because it has been sitting around the house since last fall.

It is a very dark, serious novel, not what I expected from the author of Harry Potter.  The writing is sometimes a little rough, but she plots the story well and the characters are mostly well-drawn.

Barry Fairbrother’s death causes a vacancy on the Parish Council, and the novel revolves around characters who are affected by the coming election. Barry was regarded by some as a radical who was trying to save The Fields, an area council estate, and who advocated the rehab clinic funded by Pagford. The conservatives want to see the Fields incorporated into the nearby city of Yarvil, because they do not want addicts and criminals in their town.

There is a huge cast of characters, some likable, others smug and callous: Howard Mollison, the scheming overweight deli owner, wants his son, Miles, to be elected so they can defeat the liberals; Howard’s wife, Shirley, who takes delight in malicious gossip and in the “ghost” messages that are hacked into the Parish Council website, doesn’t delete the messages that ruin lives until she is informed they are libelous; Colin Wall, a deputy headmaster with OCD,  decides to run for the council to save Barry’s work in the Fields; his smart, overtaxed wife, Tessa, a guidance counselor, wishes Colin understood his unpopularity, and is tired of their son Fats’ rebelliousness; Parminda Jawanda, a council member and doctor who is discriminated against as “a Paki,” misses Barry the most, and is appalled that Howard wants to shut down the rehab clinic; and Simon Price, an abusive husband and father, wants to run for the council seat so he can benefit from bribes from contractors.

The question:  Can you save the very poor?

“Nuke the inner city,” a Republican friend once said to shock me.

“Fund the programs,” I said.

Tessa, the guidance counselor, and Kay, the social worker, are the most believable characters. They are involved with the poor, but they do not overestimate their effect.

The Weedon family is at the heart of the Fields.

Tessa, who works in guidance with Crystal Weedon, an addict’s daughter and champion of the school’s rowing team, keeps her in school and from menacing and beating up other students, but on the other hand she can’t turn the life around of Crystal’s mother. (Crystal is fond of Tessa, so she steals her watch.)  Kay, the social worker who has moved from London to be with a man who exploits her sexually, makes a difference when she takes over the Weedons’ case as a substitute:  she persuades Terry to get back with the rehab clinic program, talks to Crystal, and gets the toddler, Robbie, who might have to be put into care, back into pre-school.   She does everything she can to keep the family together.

But after the other case worker comes back to work, things spin out of control.

This is a good book, perhaps a little too controlled:  we have a lot of stock characters, and I wondered if there was anything beneath the surface of the most hypocritical.

I am sure Rowling’s next adult book will be better.  This is a very fast, entertaining, albeit very, very depressing, read.