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Rhian Ellis '90
Reviewed by Dan Chaon, visiting assistant professor of creative
Ellis's striking first novel manages rather miraculously to
be both a page-turning thriller of psychological suspense
and an acute and tender character study. The book begins with
--"First I had to get his body into the boat," is
the eye-catching opening line--and proceeds from there to pull
us into a sympathetic collusion with the murderess and protagonist,
Naomi Ash. "A lonely life is a crime without witnesses,"
thinks Naomi at one point, "It is a movie playing in a
locked theater; can you ever really be sure what happens in
it? Can you be sure that it happens at all?" It's an apt
question. As a professional spiritualist medium, Naomi is continually
caught between the knowledge of her sometimes fraudulent methods
and her hopeful faith that perhaps she really does have a gift
for communicating with the dead. Perhaps, she thinks, "belief
was a decision I could make." But her doubts set her apart
from the other residents of Train Line, New York, a tiny town
made up of members of the Church of Spiritualist Studies, a
collection of New Agers, hypnotists, and fortune tellers, among
whom Naomi is a gloomy outsider. For many years, her crime remains
a secret. But then the body is discovered, and the careful and
aloof life Naomi has built for herself begins to unravel.
This is a book that rediscovers the old-fashioned story-telling
virtues of a writer like Shirley Jackson. Like Jackson's wonderful
novels, After Life draws us in with a carefully crafted
mixture of charm and dread. It's the kind of novel that evokes
the supernatural power a good book once had over a reader, the
kind of book that you might have curled up with in an easy chair
when you were 12, unable to stop reading, not wanting it to
end; when you lift your head after the last page, the light
has changed, and a ghostly flutter has lodged in your chest.
Rhian Ellis lives in Ithaca, New York, with
her husband, author J. Robert Lennon, and two sons, Owen and Oliver.
She holds an MFA from the University of Montana.