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Pop Lit

Haunted by spirits - and memories

By Diane White
October 11, 2009

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October’s lineup begins with a novel about a purloined ancient manuscript and a pair of ghosts in the Boston Athenaeum. The second novel is about twin sisters, a psychological suspense story with otherworldly overtones. The third is a well-constructed piece that reimagines the final days of Virginia Woolf.

Anza O’Malley, the engaging narrator of “The Book of Illumination,’’ is the result of a collaboration between paranormal investigator Mary Ann Winkowski, consultant to CBS-TV’s “Ghost Whisperer,’’ and writer/filmmaker Maureen Foley. Anza can see and speak with ghosts, a gift she inherited from her Italian grandmother. Perhaps more astonishing is that Anza manages to support herself and her 5-year old son Henry, in Cambridge yet, by working as a freelance bookbinder. Now that really requires suspension of disbelief.

Anza’s narrative style is appealingly matter-of-fact. Her ability to communicate with the departed is normal, she tells her friend Sylvia. “Ghosts are just another category of people, with the same quirks and qualities they possessed in life.’’ Sylvia, a fellow bookbinder who works at the Boston Athenaeum, is in a jam. She has been secretly working on an illustrated manuscript that may be the long-lost Book of Kildare, a 12th century Irish masterpiece rumored to be even more splendid than the Book of Kells. Now the book has disappeared, and someone is cutting it up and selling the plates on the black market. The desecration has attracted the angry ghosts of two monks who have been guarding the manuscript since the 12th century. Anza finds the time to placate the spirits and help Sylvia, even as she juggles the demands of motherhood, her bookbinding career, and a couple of subplots, one involving a charming manuscript expert. “The Book of Illumination’’ has some evocative descriptions of Boston and Cambridge, the work, I assume, of Foley, who lives in the area.

The word “haunting’’ applies to “The Last Will of Moira Leahy.’’ Therese Walsh’s strange, fascinating novel of psychological suspense is suffused with the supernatural. Maeve Leahy, a young professor of languages at a small college, is haunted by memories of her lost twin, Moira. Her sister has been in a coma for nearly 10 years after an accident that Maeve blames herself for causing. After Maeve buys an antique Javanese dagger, called a keris, at an auction, her nightmares and hallucinations about Moira become more intense.

The keris opens a door to the past, when the twins were children, happy and inseparable, playing pirates in their father’s boat near their home in Castine, Maine. Anonymous messages appear on Maeve’s office door. One is a small book about weaponry, bookmarked to a page about keris. Another suggests that she travel to Rome to learn more about the history of the weapon.

Maeve’s best friend Kit secretly arranges a ticket to Rome. She also contacts an old love of Maeve’s, antiques expert Noel Ryan, who has been living in Paris, and arranges for him to surprise Maeve in Rome. Noel, who is trying to solve a family mystery of his own, helps Maeve with her bewildering and dangerous quest, a nightmare-filled ordeal that sometimes makes her think that she is going mad. In flashbacks Walsh writes about the girls as children and teenagers, and reveals the distressing events that left one twin in a coma and the other emotionally paralyzed. Walsh’s novel is an imaginative exploration of the bond between twins.

The prolific Stephanie Barron has written many novels, but she’s probably best known as the author of the popular Jane Austen mysteries, featuring the immortal Jane as a detective. In her latest, “The White Garden: A Novel of Virginia Woolf,’’ Barron takes the liberty of spinning a web of secrets and suspense around Woolf’s death. In March 1941 the celebrated writer filled her pockets with stones and drowned herself in the River Ouse near her home in Sussex.

In this novel, Barron imagines that Woolf didn’t die, but fled to her friend and former lover Vita Sackville-West at Sissinghurst Castle in Kent. Enter Jo Bellamy, some 70 years later, a landscape designer who has traveled to Sissinghurst to study Sackville-West’s famous White Garden in order to try to recreate it on the Long Island estate of a client. Jo’s grandfather Jock had worked at Sissinghurst at the time of Woolf’s death.

Just before Jo was due to leave for England Jock hanged himself in his garage. Among his belongings was a 1943 postcard in which he alludes to the death of “that lady back home.’’ At Sissinghurst Jo discovers a notebook in a garden shed with an entry that may have been written by Woolf but dated the day after she supposedly drowned. The plot is off and running, with Jo attempting to authenticate the diary even as she fends off the amorous advances of her client’s husband, then struggles not to fall in love with a debonair Sotheby’s expert. There are flashbacks to wartime England in 1941, a downed German pilot, Soviet spies, espionage and counter-espionage, excerpts from a hidden manuscript, a secret diary. It’s all pretty improbable, but it’s popular fiction, after all, and nicely done.

Diane White writes every month about new light and popular fiction.

THE BOOK OF ILLUMINATION
By Mary Ann Winkowski and Maureen Foley
Three Rivers, 320 pp, $14

THE LAST WILL OF MOIRA LEAHY
By Therese Walsh
Shaye Areheart, 304 pp., $24

THE WHITE GARDEN: A Novel of Virginia Woolf
By Stephanie Barron
Bantam, 336 pp., paper, $15

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