My rating: 5 of 5 stars
The haunting cover made me pick this up in the library. I wasn’t entirely sure if it was paranormal not or if it was more about the spiritualist movement during WWI. It’s a bit of both. It’s an outstanding melding of ghost story and a terrifying moment in history.
Mary Shelley Black has had an unusual background as we slowly learn. Her mother was a lady doctor and her father has been arrested by the government for speaking out against the war (we later learn he did more) Mary has been sent from Oregon to her Aunt Eva’s house near Coronado in California in the hopes the warmer weather would be protection from the Spanish Flu. Eva is only ten years older than Mary putting her at 26 years old and newly widowed. She’s building battleships for the Navy. Mary and her aunt are close but Eva believes everything Julian Embers says. Julian is Stephen’s older brother and a spiritual photographer. Mary is sure he’s a fake and is appalled a photo of her (see the cover) is his selling point. Stephen was on his way to being a great photographer when things went sideways.
The last time Mary had been in Coronado before the flu, before her father’s imprisonment, she and Stephen shared a kiss. He was escaping his older half-brother and the unbearable household he was in now that his own father had died. He was going to join the army. Julian, jealous of his brother, told Eva that he caught them about to have sex which in 1917-18 was a huge deal. Eva doesn’t want the two young people in love to have anything to do with each other as a result and won’t believe Mary it never happened. She also insists Mary sit for another photograph during which strange things are heard in the house and it kicks off the meat of the story. Soon after when they go to get the picture, they learn Stephen has died in the war.
Mary is naturally distraught and completely overwhelmed. Her father’s imprisonment, the mind-numbing fear of the flu (keeping in mind that everyone went everywhere in surgical masks and many people died of this flu, H1N1 (which went into pandemic form again just a few years ago in 09). Some 500 million contracted it and between 50-100 million died), the fear of anything German (her aunt’s surname is German and her own name is associated with Frankenstein and Germany of course), Mary struggles to cope, fails and after a near death experience she can now almost smell/taste emotional states (sort of a synesthesia). Mary is also being haunted by Stephen and begins to wonder what really happened to him. Was he really in that closed coffin? How did he die during the war? What if he didn’t die in the war? Why is he telling her blackbirds are poisoning him, killing him? What is Julian so afraid of?
Mary’s aunt isn’t as much as help as Mary needs. Eva is afraid. Understandably so. People are dragging German-born neighbors out of their homes and beating them. She’s a twenty-something in 1918, an era where women working is unusual. She fears having to bob her hair has ruined her chances for a man and stability (which might make a modern woman’s eyes roll but back then, it was a big deal.) She has a giant crush on Julian and dislikes Mary’s friendship with Mr. Darling, someone who is debunking spirit photography. This is NOT a Victorian-only thing. It was very popular in WWI with the high death toll making people desperate. Harry Houdini did debunking in the 1920s.
Anyhow as Mary deals with the haunting, with all the loss and the fear of the flu, she begins to unravel the case and leads herself right into danger. This was probably a 4.5 stars for me but I was in a good mood and rounded up. I loved Mary and poor hapless Stephen. The details on the flu (camphor bags, the masks, the garlic/onion gum etc) were amazing. My grandmother lived through this flu. She remembers being off school because places where people gathered were more likely to spread it being an airborne disease. While I’m almost certain this was a one-off book, I am looking forward to whatever Ms. Winters writes next.
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