Thursday, February 7, 2019

The Possessions - Sara Flannery Murphy

At the risk of sounding like a cooking blog writer, I'm going to start this entry with a personal and only vaguely related anecdote.  When I was an impressionable youth attending a liberal arts college at the tender age of 18, I had the brilliant and economically sensible idea of taking a course in Canadian women's literature.  I think it was supposed to be my fun elective, since I liked reading and had already proved the semester before that I was terrible at art.  I don't remember much about the individual books that I read, but I do remember that the overarching theme of the class seemed to be women aged 21-35 who had a lot of issues surrounding fertility and motherhood.  Every book had some brooding heroine who liked to hang around water and dream about babies.  At 18, this was unfathomable to me.  Having had the mantra of "DON'T GET PREGNANT" drilled into my head from all directions from 6th grade onward, the idea that at some point people actually tried to get pregnant on purpose seemed false.  I thought to myself that hanging around water and imaging the lake as my uterus wasn't going to make me want a baby anytime soon, and also that it was fairly unhygienic.  Maybe the water or the babies were metaphors, I don't really know.  I was 18 and had moved from one farm town to another even more farmey town, so I knew nothing at all.  

The Possessions is not written by a Canadian author, but it does feature water, brooding, dreams, and babies.  I loved the premise right off the bat.  The setting is almost recognizable as our own modern day world, but with slightly less reliance on technology.  The main character is a medium, and her job is to channel the dead for her grieving clients.  No one seems to think this is quackery, and the entire process is facilitated by a drug called "lotus."

At first this seemed to be a mostly gothic story with slow pacing, but with the plot of a murder mystery. One of the rules the mediums and clients are supposed to adhere to is that they're not to channel people who've died by suicide or violent means, The main danger appears to be that the spirits might come through with a desire to hurt their host bodies, or they might just take over permanantly. 

Our main character, Edie, has been working this job for about five years and appears to have no real life of her own outside of the lives she lives for her clients.  It's obvious from the first chapter that there's a Big Dark Secret Past she's hiding from, and I was very excited to learn why someone else would choose to spend their entire lives blacking out and letting dead people use their bodies.  It would be a different story if the medium could experience the spirits' lives during the sessions, but in this story the medium disappears entirely while the encounters are taking place, and if they do remember anything of their spirit visitors, it's usually a pretty bad sign.

Naturally, Edie starts having hallucinations and dreams almost as soon as she channels her handsome, mysterious client's dead wife.  The wife is said to have drowned as part of an accident, but Edie is smart enough to realize almost immediately that there's got to be a lot more to this story.

Let's go to spoiler town here, so I can can get to my outragey rant.  The dead woman (Sylvia) was clearly not the innocent drowing victim she appeared to be, and the husband (Patrick) was less than forthcoming with the society of mediums when he told them why he had to contact his wife.  There's a whole sequence of Sylvia taking over Edie's body without the aid of the lotus, and soon Edie is channeling the wife in an effort to build a relationship with the husband, Patrick. This is like a love triangle gone competely bonkers.  Is Edie really in love with Patrick, or is is it the dead wife living through her body?  Was Sylvia having an affair?  Was her death an accident?

Both.  Yes.  Maybe but probably not?
Sylvia turns out to be living a double life, and she attempts to break up her lover's marriage when she finds out his wife is having a baby.  Sylvia has come back through Edie to seek her revenge from beyond the grave.  Because, surprise, she's not just pissed that her lover has dumped her for his pregnant wife.  Sylvia ALSO has baby fever. Of course she does.  
And guess what?  Edie has baby fever, too!  What are the odds?  
I had to google the author to see if I'd accidentally stumbled across my old nemesis, Canadian Womens' Lit again. Surprised to find the author is from Little Rock, I briefly entertained the idea that SHE was the real medium, channeling an author from the Great White North.

Naturally, Sylvia's former lover decides to crack the seal on Edie's secret life in order to separate her (and Sylvia) from Patrick.  Revenge for revenge!  This novel goes from gothic thriller to Lifetime Original in about two chapters. To redeem this, I needed Edie's deep, dark, secret past to be something terrible.  Something grotesque.  Some kind of plot twist.  Anything other than....

Edie, suffering from severe depression, had accidentally miscarried months after a suicide attempt, and it was unclear if the suicide attempt was the cause of the miscarriage.  No evidence.  So naturally she was given the treatment she needed and appropriate counseling.  

Hahahahahaha!   Because this book is just a little dystopian future, not one person offered comfort or sympathy for Edie and her mental health.  No, she was pretty much just reviled, blamed, and chased from her former life for "murdering" a baby.  She was arrested and almost charged with murder.  
Patrick finds this out and leaves her.  Rather than telling him to go jump in the lake and drown like his dead wife, she APOLOGIZES to him.  

It gets worse.  Patrick accuses her of lying to him, and of keeping a secret life from him.  Yes.  The man who lied about his dead wife's violent death despite knowing of the risk to the medium, the same man who seduced the medium and had sex with her as both herself AND his dead wife, that man is mad that she  didn't prostrate herself at his feet and weep tears of forgivensss for having 1. clinical depression and 2. a very common type of miscarriage.  An illness and miscarriage that happened before he met her, and which had nothing to do with him.

When. Did. This. Become. Atwood?  I signed on for a thriller!

I realize that the author was probably going for feminist outrage here, understanding that it's far more terrifying that ghosts who need drugs to take over the living.  Women face this kind of horrible puritanical fetus worship constantly.  In real life, women are seen as little more than host bodies to channel the unborn.  Much like Edie is little more than a host body to channel the dead relatives of her clients. If I were back in freshman English, I'd be high-fiving myself as I typed that last sentence. Of course Patrick is a trash bag, and almost all of the men in this novel turn out to be garbage humans.  Sylvia, still lurking and occasionally possessing Edie, knows that Edie is now pregnant with Patrick's child.  And Sylvia, who also wanted Patrick's child, uses her ghostey powers to protect Edie from her illness so that they can have the baby.  

There's a strong thread of sisterhood running through this book.  The mediums and the most complex characters are women.  The few male characters are either horrible, or barely described at all.  Throughout the novel women are helping each other survive in what seems to be a tough economy.  In the few instances where it seems like a man may be coming to resuce one of the female characters in some way, he fails spectacularly.  There's also a thin murder mystery thread separate from the Sylvia/Patrick story that turns out to be one of those moral grey areas when we finally discover who did it and why.    

This book also feels like it's a commentary about how women give so much of themselves to help others.  Not just as mothers, but for other people in general.  Even as Edie is planning to run away with Patrick and have his baby while also channeling his dead wife for his sexual pleasure, she feels guilty that she's letting her other clients down by not allowing them to use her body anymore.  In the end, Edie realizes she's only happy when she's giving herself to others.  And this is...good?  Good that she's happy?  Messed up that her sense of self is entirely dependent on her giving up all of her autonamy for others?  Is this supposed to be a compromise?  

The good:  I loved the writing and the tone, and I like that it didn't end with some trite love story.  It ends with a woman starting a successful life on her own tems, if by "on her own terms" you mean that she's still sharing her body with another woman.  

The bad:  I just don't know that I can forgive the fact that the murders of the grown women in the book seemed less dramatic in the end than the (accidental) miscarriage.  For that kind of build up, I'd been hoping for a Psycho style ending, with her keeping Sylvia's bones in her living room or something.  The Atwood style ending wasn't what I was expecting from the creepy start of the novel. 

When you've braced yourself for almost supernatural horror, it's hard to reconcile a social commentary ending.  

I rarely find myself so conflicted about a book, which is why I wanted to write about it.  I both loved and hated parts of this story, and I'm still thinking of it a few weeks later.  I suspect this is the mark of good writing, and my reaction to it was probably what my literature professor was going for all those years ago.