April 2011

Grief and greed combine in coming-of-age story

By Paul Elwork
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The Girl Who Would Speak for the Dead, by Pennsylvania novelist Paul Elwork, was inspired by the Fox sisters, three 19th-century siblings who claimed they could communicate with the dead. Elwork sets his novel in the early 1920s, when the memories of the Great War were fresh enough for grieving families to pursue methods of contacting their lost fathers, husbands, and sons. Precocious teenage twins Emily and Michael Stewart live alone with their widowed mother on a large estate on the outskirts of Philadelphia. When Emily discovers she can make a knocking sound with the tendons and bones of her ankle, she and her twin begin to put on séances for the neighborhood kids, convincing them that the rapping noises are from spirits from beyond the grave. Under Michael’s manipulation, demand for Emily’s gift grows. What starts as a prank soon takes a serious turn when she is asked to visit a group of elderly widows, then a playmate’s father sunk in a deep depression over the loss of an older son. At the same time, a family friend arrives at the estate whose presence throws the twins’ implacable mother off balance.

The poignant sorrows of her neighbors motivate Emily to start wondering about her own losses. She uncovers a hidden photo album, incisively annotated by her mother, which reveal the ill-starred loves and tragic deaths that plagued their family in generations past. Emily is most confused about what the photos and notes suggest about her own parents. Her compassionate desire to console those who are suffering, combined with suspicions about her parents’ marriage, push her to take more risks with her grieving clients.

Though engrossing, The Girl Who Would Speak for the Dead suffers from an identity crisis. With all the trappings of a gothic novel—big house, secret passageways, and family secrets, the quieter but more moving story of a young girl coming of age struggles to be heard. Luckily, as the novel moves forward, Emily’s story emerges triumphant. Though Elwood may have been inspired by 19th-century spiritualism, he is best as a subtle explorer of human emotions.


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