Unexpected. I haven’t tried Lovecraft for years, perhaps decades, so this lingered on my TBR, due to numerous reviews and blurbs mentioning how it turns Lovecroft storytelling sideways. But a female lead, magic, water, and the almost ringing endorsement of book-twin Mimi had me bumping it up.
I found it enjoyable, perhaps because I never could truly predict where it was going, the hallmark of a book I could see owning. What it reminds me of is quiet, the muffled mist-soaked morning beauty by a lake and following a winding path by the water’s edge. Easy to put down, when I needed to, it was also very easy to pick up again, and oddly captivating for a story that was not a thriller.
“My thoughts coalesced: listening to myself, I learned what I believed.”
~brief summary for those with terrible memories~
Aphra Marsh and brother Caleb are the only survivors of massacre and forced evacuation at Innsmouth many years ago. They survived an internment camp through the help of the community there, including later Japanese arrivals who adopted them. Now Aphra is living in San Francisco with the Katos and working at a bookstore owned by her friend and acolyte, Charlie. In January, 1949, an FBI agent, Ron Spector, comes calling, looking for Aphra’s expertise. He wants her help reading through the Innsmouth collection at the Miskatonic library, to see if it has information on a body-switching technique. The FBI is afraid a Russian agent has studied there. Caleb has been camping at the library’s doorstep for years, but has been forbidden access. Aphra decides to accept, out of concern that the Russians might use the technique to set off bombs, and as an opportunity to explore her own heritage. She stipulates that Caleb and Charlie will be included. Once there, they discover a number of other people have an interest in the special collection.
Emrys’ writing is pleasantly sophisticated, easily up to the task of building a world of uncertain atmosphere: “My subconscious had marked her as a predator from the first–she had a strength and viciousness almost certainly necessary to survive Miskatonic’s academic and political grottos.” There’s something slightly period about it in word choice and structure that helps it feel like it was written more mid-century and lends solidity to Aphra’s characterization.
Representation and tolerance are strengths of this book. The story has ongoing themes about family, both genetic and chosen, as well as identity/racial history, and tolerance. There’s a significant number of sassy and self-directed female characters, and a lovely assortment of developing friendships, both same-sex and male-female. A couple of romantic pairings that transcend period expectations are a side note to the main story.
Narration is first person, from Aphra’s perspective. Characterization is story-telling strength, here, and it’s nice to see the way the characters gradually grow and come to trust each other. Audrey, a woman from a nearby women’s college, provides a lot of the verbal chutzpah and ended up being a character I quite liked:
“Trumball turned her gaze on Audrey, frowning. ‘You appear perfectly sane.’
Audrey blinked. If she felt any fear or repugnance, she kept it well hidden. ‘Do people often go mad at the sight of you? That seems like it would be awkward.'”
Concerns: first, I felt the parallels between the Innsmouth people and the Japanese was not at all subtle. This is compounded by an almost off-hand reference about the creation of Israel creating greater mistrust of Jewish Americans. Maybe this is because I am old, and know something of history, but I wondered why the author chose to be so forceful with her messaging. Second, and this is almost always a problem with me and fictional spiritualism, is the mysticism. I actually thought the spiritual aspects were done exceedingly well at first, but it fell apart quite badly during the ultimate engagement. This could also correspond with Mimi’s assessment that this section went on too long.
Third, and note that I only think this in retrospect, is that everybody but Turnbull felt young. Aphra felt painfully naive for someone who survived years in a camp. I don’t feel as irritable about the characterizations as I did with Kevin Hearne’s Iron Druid series–I think this is because Aphra isn’t actually old yet–but her “elders” also felt and seemed young. What an impetuous grandfather she has.
I would recommend reading it if it sounds appealing, even if you are unfamiliar with Lovecraft or dislike his writing. It was a quietly interesting, captivating book that I could read again.