Martha isn't afraid of ghosts.
Not that she doesn't see them. The narrator of Tampa writer Karen Brown's new novel, The Clairvoyants, sees the spirits of the dead so often it's become routine. Many of them are the shades of people she hardly knows, distinguishable from the living only by their expressions of longing and confusion.
As Martha tells us, "The dead appeared in the Big Y supermarket, not in the places we expected. They couldn't be courted or sought out."
But some of them cut closer to the bone, like the apparition of a missing young woman, Mary Rae Swindal, whose persistence will lead Martha to try to discover her fate — a quest that will put her own life in danger.
This is the second compelling novel by Brown (the first was The Longings of Wayward Girls), who has also published two fine books of short stories, Pins and Needles and Little Sinners. She teaches creative writing and literature at the University of South Florida.
Most of Brown's fiction focuses with psychological acuity on the experiences of girls and young women as they navigate the sometimes perilous challenges of sexuality and independence. The Clairvoyants follows those themes, intensifying them by adding a paranormal mystery that will turn Martha's life upside down.
The novel's main characters are Martha and her younger sister, Del. Brown moves from chapters about their childhood, in their grandparents' rambling house near the Atlantic Ocean, to present-day events in and around Ithaca, N.Y., where Martha is a freshman at Cornell University.
As kids, reserved Martha and pretty, wild-child Del were fascinated by the nearby Spiritualists by the Sea camp, where seances, psychic readings and other communications with the dead were daily occurrences. Del, a gifted con artist even as a child, cooks up a scheme to charge neighborhood kids (and sometimes adults) for seances "to hear from dead relatives, from recently deceased children's show hosts, from the local babysitter killed riding on the back of her boyfriend's motorcycle."
What Del doesn't know — what no one knows — is that Martha really can see those ghosts. Her ability may run in the family, and it grows sharper after the mysterious disappearance of a local boy the sisters knew.
But the seances end as Del's mental state deteriorates and she is institutionalized. By the time Martha leaves for college, she hasn't seen her sister for three years. (It's complicated.)
So it's a shock when, as Martha is settling into her first weeks in an apartment in Ithaca, Del shows up. As Martha tries to deal with her — their mother wants her back home, Del insists she can live on her own — the older sister is also grappling with the presence of Mary Rae, who stands under a tree outside her window, shivering in a down coat, her hair covered with ice, even before the brutal New York winter sets in.
Both sisters will be drawn into the circle of Anne Whiteside, an art professor who is dying of cancer but doesn't let that stop the frequent parties at her house in the woods. Martha, who is studying photography, develops an intense relationship with another professor, William Bell, a photographer himself and Anne's protege — and a former boyfriend of the missing Mary Rae.
Brown paces the plot deliberately, building dread in both the present and past time lines as she switches between them. The stories from Martha's and Del's past take place in summer, in the kind of drowsy, sultry heat that seems to slow down time and make the smallest events vivid. The present plot, by contrast, is set mostly in winter so relentless that even indoors the cold seeps into Martha's bones. It's a cold that can isolate, and perhaps kill.
The people surrounding Martha all have their secrets, and she — and the reader — must figure out who to trust. Indeed, Martha isn't sure about herself, telling us that "as a child, caught in a lie, I had always found it easy to convince others that they were wrong; the lie mixed with what I pretended until the division between truth and untruth disappeared altogether."
Unraveling it all makes for a complex, thrilling read.
Contact Colette Bancroft at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.