Monday, January 15, 2018

Book Review: Lost Among the Living by Simone St. James

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I very much enjoyed the The Other Side of Midnight, which was the first book I read by this author. That led to this book, which can now be listed among my favorites. I can’t really put it in a category, but in the end I’d go ahead and say mystery/historical mystery, with some paranormal elements and bit of gothicness.

Beware -- there be spoilers ahead -- marked when you get there. Several reviewers thought is was a poorly done ghost story. It’s not a ghost story. A ghost plays a role in the story, but it is essentially Jo’s story and somewhat Alex’s story and shows how some people can wind up living in limbo.

We meet Jo Manders after she has been in the employ of Dottie Forsyth, her aunt by marriage, for several months, accompanying Dottie on a trip across the continent to collect artwork to sell. Dottie is a shrewd, if somewhat cold, woman. She takes advantage of the disasters wrought by the war to make a little money. Jo’s husband, Dottie’s nephew, is missing in action, under somewhat mysterious circumstances. This leaves Jo in a limbo of sorts -- not really a wife, but not a widow and with no government pension. She takes the job with Dottie out of necessity, since she is also supporting her mother, who is in an insane asylum.

Upon arrival at Dottie’s home, we learn it has been closed for several years following the suicide of her daughter, Frances, who was 15 at the time. They are anticipating the return of son Martin, who has been away at hospitals trying to recover from grievous injuries received in the war. Dottie’s goal is to marry Martin off -- to Jo. This is something neither wants and as Jo points out, something that can’t happen due to her murky legal status as a not quite widow (she’s still married in the eyes of the law). Fortunately, neither participant wants to marry and suitable arrangements are made by Dottie (they seem odd at first, but in the end it works for everyone). From here, though, a friendship develops between Martin and Jo and is one of the many things I liked about this book.

Upon arrival at Wych Elm House, Jo sees the ghost of Frances and from there odd things happen. Jo realizes these happenings are Frances and that Frances is trying to tell her something. She comes to realize that all is not what it seems with Frances’ death and sets out to find what really happened to Frances. Along the way, she discovers photography, thanks to Alex’s camera - the one thing of his she could not give away.

**Spoilers if you continue** Alex, it turns out, is not dead. This comes as somewhat of shock to the family and to Jo. There were clues hinting at this in the book, but everyone believes since he was missing in action he must be dead. It takes Jo a bit to come to terms with this. Not surprising - what she has learned during her time at Wych Elm House and in her talks with Martin and a Colonel Mabry, her husband had not be totally honest with her about his wartime activities. His three year disappearance cost her everything and forced her to work for Dottie, who was never kind. And, she’s not sure if he came back for her or to finish the one mission he couldn’t. Most women would hesitate under these circumstances, however, she loves him, so eventually she listens. And, it turns out their goal is the same -- find out who killed Frances.

There’s much more to this book -- too much to touch on in a review. Many little undercurrents that all connect. Several threads run this story, but nothing seems extraneous. It's as much about getting on with living as it is about finding out what happened to Frances. The “reveal” is a bit dramatic, but I appreciated the fact that it was not the end. We got a bit more -- not quite total closure, but close. Jo and Alex have two options for the future (well - two options for Alex’s future job), but we don’t know which one they picked. I know which one I hope they pick, but there’s a small part of me that says it’s the other one, with a twist. The person responsible for Frances’ death was not who I expected, but it made sense and wasn't at all farfetched.

One thing I was left to wonder about and will for a while: If Frances was mad because of what she saw, are Jo and Alex mad because they saw what Frances saw? Frances, I think, was schizophrenic, but I think maybe she saw what others couldn’t (i.e. spirtis/ghosts) and had no way to make sense of what she saw. So, she was mad. Jo felt like everything was being erased on her last visit to Wych Elm House, which made me wonder if the strange occurrences really happened or if it was imagined by Jo. The ending seems to says yes, it happened, so I’m going with that. 


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