Psy­chic tale turns on sink­ing of Ti­tanic

Calgary Herald - Calgary Herald New Condos - - Weekend Life - DEBBY WALD­MAN

He­len All­ston is the kind of mother who drives wedges be­tween her chil­dren with­out even try­ing. She cer­tainly dents the re­la­tion­ship be­tween her two daugh­ters when she de­ter­mines that the el­dest, Sibyl, is over the hill (though she’s barely into her 20s), and it’s time to fo­cus her match­mak­ing en­ergy on the youngest, Eu­lah.

This be­ing the early 20th cen­tury in up­per-crust Bos­ton, and He­len be­ing a so­cial climber, her match­mak­ing plans in­clude a trip to Europe (for cul­ture and cou­ture) and travel home aboard the Ti­tanic (where Eu­lah will hap­pily min­gle with the sons of wealthy, in­flu­en­tial world trav­ellers, one of whom will surely be­come He­len’s son-in-law).

When the great ship goes down on April 15, 1912, He­len and Eu­lah are among the many who wind up at the bot­tom of the North At­lantic.

But three years later, when much of Katherine Howe’s lat­est page-turner takes place, the spirit of the late Mrs. All­ston re­turns to mess with what’s left of her fam­ily.

He­len’s tim­ing makes sense: spin­ster Sibyl and widower Lan are still par­a­lyzed by grief, while son Har­lan, who was an im­pres­sion­able teen when his mom and sis­ter went to their wa­tery graves, is about to throw away his life: he’s wast­ing his last se­mes­ter at Har­vard by ca­vort­ing with an adorable but un­suit­able young ac­tress from Cal­i­for­nia.

Puz­zling out the truth about He­len’s “ap­pear­ance” pro­vides The House of Vel­vet and Glass with plenty of for­ward mo­tion.

It’s not im­me­di­ately clear whether her spirit is real, a fig­ment of Sibyl’s griefand-guilt-stricken imag­i­na­tion, or a cheap trick by the neigh­bour­hood medium.

If the psy­chic an­gle doesn’t grab you, fear not: Howe has plenty of other nar­ra­tive de­vices to hold your at­ten­tion. Opium, suf­frage, First World War and house­hold ser­vants whose an­tics call to mind the back­stairs drama of the hit PBS se­ries Down­ton Abbey play key roles in this fol­lowup to Howe’s 2009 best­selling de­but, The Physick Book of De­liv­er­ance Dane.

She re­vis­its some of what are clearly her pet sub­jects: Mas­sachusetts, magic, ro­mance, and that age-old bib­li­cal theme of the sins of the fa­ther be­ing vis­ited upon the chil­dren.

In De­liv­er­ance Dane, the sins were vis­ited over mul­ti­ple gen­er­a­tions, as Howe al­ter­nated be­tween 17th-cen­tury Salem and late-20th-cen­tury Bos­ton. The chrono­log­i­cal spread isn’t nearly as great this time around, but Howe has added more time pe­ri­ods, mov­ing from the Ti­tanic’s last night to Shang­hai in the 1860s (when Lan was a young sailor) to Bos­ton be­tween 1915 and 1917.

Howe has no trou­ble jug­gling the dif­fer­ent sto­ry­lines, which are com­pelling in large part be­cause her char­ac­ters are so vivid. Sibyl may have struck her mother as too dull and hope­less to get mar­ried, but her great­est fail­ing, if it can be called such, is that she’s more in­tro­spec­tive than the emo­tional, dra­matic, and ul­ti­mately ex­haust­ing Eu­lah.

In that way, Sibyl is more like her fa­ther, a ship­ping mag­nate who has as many se­cret facets to his per­son­al­ity as his el­dest daugh­ter has to hers. The way Howe re­veals their hid­den na­tures height­ens the ten­sion in a story that has no short­age of twists.

Howe was a PhD stu­dent in Amer­i­can and New Eng­land stud­ies at Bos­ton Univer­sity when she wrote her first novel.

She’s since earned her de­gree, but her bi­og­ra­phy doesn’t say whether she has a teach­ing po­si­tion. If she doesn’t, academia’s loss is pop­u­lar fic­tion’s gain. Howe’s at­ten­tion to pe­riod de­tail is im­pres­sive, all the more so for the way she works it so nat­u­rally into her prose.

Re­mem­brance of Things Past (a.k.a. In Search of Lost Time) by Mar­cel Proust. In its com­plete ver­sion, Proust’s opus weighs in at more than 3,000 pages. Even if you were to bring an abridged edition, or Ly­dia Davis’ 2004 trans­la­tion of just the first vol­ume, Swann’s Way, the book is mam­moth and, quite frankly, not much hap­pens. There is a good chance even an en­thu­si­as­tic reader may nod off dur­ing its med­i­ta­tions, risk­ing a blis­ter­ing sun­burn.

An­gela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt. Where bum­mers are con­cerned, it isn’t all the Ir­ish angst and rainy skies in this 1996 mem­oir that make this book seem awk­ward for the beach — it’s the bi­og­ra­phy of the au­thor, who died in 2009 af­ter a di­ag­no­sis of melanoma.

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov. You’re prob­a­bly bet­ter off not read­ing a novel about an in­ap­pro­pri­ate re­la­tion­ship with a young woman on a beach full of, among oth­ers, young women.

Char­lotte’s Web by E.B. White. Spoiler alert: This may be the sad­dest book you’ll read. If some­one com­mis­sioned a study, they would prob­a­bly find that 99.999 per cent of all peo­ple who read Char­lotte’s Web will fin­ish it in tears. To avoid sob­bing on the beach, leave this clas­sic at home.

Afp-getty Im­ages/files

The 100th an­niver­sary of the sink­ing of the Ti­tanic was marked in Hal­i­fax, where 121 vic­tims are buried.

The House of Vel­vet and Glass

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