Monday, April 2, 2012

Philly-area author's debut transports you to the melancholy, moneyed Main Line of a century past

I received a review copy of Paul Elwork's debut novel, "The Girl Who Would Speak For the Dead," (Berkley, March 2012, $15, 324 pp.) just in time to tuck it in my suitcase and take it along on a recent vacation.

The sense of foreboding in the novel cast a slight chill on the 84-degree days of my retreat.

At first I thought it was going to be a ghost story, but I changed my tune after delving in. This book is more of a mystery that spans the generations who reside in a grand family mansion on the banks of the Delaware River around the first World War.

Throughout there's an atmosphere of  things left unsaid at a time when people were slow to reveal their true feelings and passions.

Elwork, who writes from somewhere closeby in the Philly 'burbs, modeled Ravenwood, the riverfront mansion setting for the novel, on Philadelphia's Glen Foerd estate, now part of the Fairmount Park system.

Once the site of grand parties in happier times, Ravenwood has become a solitary refuge for wealthy and reclusive young widow Naomi Stewart, her 13-year-old twins, and the help.

Twins Emily and Michael, bored during their 13th summer - the summer of 1925- come up with a scheme to trick the other kids in the neighborhood into thinking they can communicate with ghosts. That Emily can, that is. Michael acts more like her manager.

Emily possesses a "talent" that allows her to (and this can't be good for a young girl's bones) make an eerie reverberating sound with her ankle without appearing to move a muscle. The sound is so unusual that, once Emily discovers she can produce it, she uses it to trick her brother Michael into thinking he's being visited by something otherworldly - perhaps a ghost that makes noises that sound like knocks.

Michael is so impressed he puts together a seance of sorts with their neighborhood friends. The meeting place is a small cottage on the estate that's fairly close to the river. Surrounded by her friends in the small outbuilding known as the Tea House, Emily calls forth the spirit of her great-aunt, Regina, who died an accidental death at a young age decades before at the riverside. Regina "answers" questions via one knock or two, and the children are duly impressed.

Word of Emily's "Spirit Knocking" ability spreads from the twins' friends to the friends' parents, though somehow Naomi never catches wind of it. At this time in history, with so many loved ones dead in World War II, there's no shortage of people who are missing someone, no dearth of unfinished business. That goes, too, for Naomi and her late husband, Donald.

The reader catches glimpses of Naomi and Donald at earlier dates, and of Donald's relatives who built Ravenwood - a place that contains many secrets. I won't give away the story, especially since you can win it for yourself (see below). Suffice to say Emily and Michael find themselves facing real consequences of their fake mischief.
My poor cell-phone photography of Elwork's book as it visited
with me one of  Florida's barrier islands.
I could've at least gotten the ocean in the photo!

What I found most intriguing about "The Girl Who Would Speak for the Dead" was that Elwork sustained a dark and melancholy tone throughout.

While I liked the book, there were times when I felt the pacing lagged, and in parts read like it was geared toward a much-younger audience.

That said, Elwork's writing style in this debut is both unique and charming. His novel is worth a read, preferably somewhere your toes can be touching sand - or the soft lapping of the Delaware River - while you do.

To learn more ... 

Check out Elwork's website for more book- and author-related information.

Click here to read Terrible Minds blogger Chuck Wendig's entertaining March interview with Paul Elwork. It's here that I read that Elwork is a fellow fan of the hoppy deliciousness of IPAs.

About the author (from his website):

Paul Elwork has a bachelor’s degree in anthropology from Temple University and a master’s degree in English from Arcadia University. His fiction has appeared in various literary journals, including SmokeLong Quarterly, Philadelphia Stories, Short Story America, Word Riot, and Johnny America. He lives on the outskirts of Philadelphia.

"The Girl Who Would Speak for the Dead," his first novel, was released in hardcover by Amy Einhorn Books in March 2011. The paperback edition was released by Berkley Books in  March 2012.

Want to win it? 

If you would like to "win" my slightly used paperback review copy of the book, simply comment on this post with your email address. I'll contact you to find out where to mail the book if you are selected.


Silvercrown said...

If there are no others with interest, I would love to have this book. It sounds interesting & I always enjoy books with a local setting.

Michelle Karas said...

Congrats to Geri M. of St. Peters, PA, who won this only slightly used book.

Anonymous said...

Hi Michelle. Monday is World Book Night, 4/23. I met several people who are involved at the Towne book Center and Cafe in Collegeville tonight. They held a reception for those of us "givers" as we picked up our 25 copies of our chosen book to share. I chose "Zeitoun" to share at The Clinic in Phoenixville. I will be there on Monday offering a copy of the book in hopes of encouraging others to enjoy reading. Visit World Book Night's facebook page. I thought you might be interested in this activity. It is so cool! Rosalie Lisa (