Hey guys! Today, I’m reviewing The Spirit Photographer by Jon Michael Varese, which was kindly sent to me by Duckworth Publishing (thank you!)
What the book was about
Boston, 1870. Photographer Edward Moody runs a booming business capturing the images of the spirits of the departed in his portraits. He lures grieving widows and mourning mothers into his studio with promises of catching the ghosts of their deceased loved ones with his camera. Despite the whispers around town that Moody is a fraud of the basest kind, no-one has been able to expose him, and word of his gift has spread, earning him money, fame, and a growing list of illustrious clients.
One day, while developing the negative from a sitting to capture the spirit of the young son of an abolitionist senator, Moody is shocked to see a different spectral figure develop before his eyes. Instead of the staged image of the boy he was expecting, the camera has seemingly captured the spirit of a beautiful young woman. Is it possible that the spirit photographer caught a real ghost? When Moody recognizes the woman in the photograph as the daughter of an escaped slave he knew long ago, he is compelled to travel from Boston to the Louisiana bayous to resolve their unfinished business—and perhaps save his soul. But more than one person is out to stop him . . .
What I thought of it
This was a really interesting read. The book kept me guessing from start to finish; I was never quite sure if the photographer was a fraud or if he really did have the ability to capture ghosts in his photographs. The author managed to create an atmosphere of ambiguity that really compelled me to keep reading.
One of my favourite aspects of the book was the historical detail. Obviously, some of the political aspects were simplified for ease of reading (the author specifies this in his author’s note at the end of the book and I think it was a sensible choice). However, I definitely think that these details added a fascinating layer of depth to the story that I really appreciated. Some scenes made for uncomfortable reading (the book is set at a time when slavery was still an issue and the treatment of black people was, frankly, disgusting) but I understand that the author was painting a realistic picture of the era.
The book’s setting was another element I loved. I thought the author encapsulated the essence of the southern states really well, especially during the scenes in the swamps. Yet, I could also vividly picture the city scenes and the photography studio. I felt transported while reading (and isn’t that the whole point?)
The quality of the writing in this book is excellent, especially when you consider that this is a debut novel (it really doesn’t read like one). The author clearly has a lot of talent. The book tackles a number of heavy themes and they are woven together seamlessly with a compelling story.
I will say that the book did feel a bit slow at times and, for that reason, I wouldn’t recommend it to everyone. However, if you like your plot full of intrigue and uncertainty, this might be one for you!
Huge thanks again to Duckworth for sending me an ARC (even though I’m late reviewing it, oops). I gave this one 4/5 stars!