Karen Brown’s The Clairvoyants

the-clairvoyants-karen-brown-51htld99dbl-_sx328_bo1204203200_“It’s not as poetic as The Girls,” says my friend Janet, the poet.  “But it is poetic.”

She was talking about Karen Brown’s The Clairvoyants, the first selection of our new book club.

The club was Janet’s idea.  She has been perturbed by tangle of work stress and boyfriend problems:  she started a new job and her ageing boyfriend now wants to move in to her tiny converted chicken coop in Amish country.

The book club is a diversion. “Let’s go to a bookstore, choose a stack of interesting books,read first chapters, and then choose the most interesting.”

There are seven of us:  we’re all big readers.  The Clairvoyants was Janet’s selection.

And we all loved Brown’s beautifully-written novel, which bridges the gap between literary and commercial fiction. (You can tell by the blurbs:  one by National Book Award-winning Lily Tuck, another by Edgar winner Lori Roy.) It is the story of two sisters, Martha, a reluctant clairvoyant, who, after she moves to Ithaca,  repeatedly sees the ghost of Mary Rae, a missing person.  Her sister, wild, promiscuous Del, drinks and takes too many drugs until she has a mental breakdown.  Their mother pulls strings and  banishes her to a progressive mental hospital.

The girls grew up near a summer community of clairvoyants by the sea, and through their spying learned the tricks of mediums.  Del, the huckster, sets up their own psychic business in the barn for a day; even an adult neighbor consults Martha the clairvoyant.

But later they are occupied with boys.  And one summer they are traumatized by the murder of David, a local boy who made sexual advances to both.  For years they are hounded by a detective.  And Martha, though outwardly normal, seldom leaves home, and whiles away two years commuting to Wesleyan part-time.  Finally her mother packs her off to Cornell:  she is so eager to get rid of Martha that she doesn’t even spend the first night with Martha in her strange new apartment. And so Martha goes on a walk at night, following the ghost Mary Rae.

Her observations are both wise and elegiac.

I pretended I was simply out for a walk on a late summer evening.  I tried to focus on the trees arching over the sidewalk, the quaintness of the houses with their big front porches, imagining how I would describe things to Del in a letter.  The air felt cooler and the breeze, which had once seemed to promise a storm, kicked the leaves.  We walked down one street, then another–Geneva, Cascadilla.  Students had moved in, had laid down their rugs, and were acclimating to the people around them.  It didn’t escape me that my fresh start involved none of those things; rather than making new friends, I was following a dead girl.  I approached a party on a candlelit porch–laughter, banter, the group partially hidden by tall shrubbery.  Mary Rae stopped walking and paused, lingering, as if she longed to join them; as if she sensed I, too, wished to go in.

Karen Brown

Karen Brown

Brown’s prose is poetic, almost scannably rhythmic, as she spins her slow, subtle story. Telling details vivify the scenes.  As an art student Martha takes eerie photos of ghosts (other people see empty spaces with a  strange light). And Del shows up on her doorstep, having left the mental institution, and moves in with her.  Del is strange: she makes friends with a psychic in a homeless encampment.  But she is also her sister’s protector, worried about Martha’s relationship with William, a photographer who used to be involved with Mary Rae.

And since many people are “psychic,” to a degree–we all say we’re psychic  in the book club–we were fascinated by the concept as well as the writing.

Moodwise, it’s where Twilight meets The Secret History.  No vampires, but there is a murderer or two.

And here is a description of Karen Brown from the Macmillan website.

Little Sinners and Other Stories was named a Best Book of 2012 by Publisher’s Weekly; her previous collection, Pins and Needles received AWP’s Grace Paley Prize for Short Fiction; and her first novel, The Longings of Wayward Girls, was published in 2013 by Washington Square Press to rave reviews. Her work has been featured in The PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories, Best American Short Stories, The New York Times, and Good Housekeeping. She teaches creative writing and literature at the University of South Florida.