Tuesday, August 15, 2017

A Summer With the Dead

In Sherry Decker's newest novel, A Summer With the Dead, a young woman named Maya Pedersen goes to spend a summer at her aunt Elly's farmhouse in rural Washington state, anticipating a relaxing few months following an emotionally exhausting break-up with her abusive husband. Complicating matters, Maya suffers an array of obsessive-compulsive behaviors as well as occasional hallucinations, which she hopes will vanish as her state of mind improves in the remote, tranquil setting.

Naturally, nothing is ever so simple. It isn't long before Elly reveals her own share of peculiarities, including the occasional personality swap with a gruff male Maya comes to call "Mr. Elly." A hired hand, a young man named Coty, appears to take delight in scaring the devil out of Maya, yet she finds herself strangely drawn to him. A fall down a dark well and a desperate crawl to safety through a tight subterranean passage do little to soothe her frayed nerves.

As Maya's dreams of an idyllic summer fade, strange apparitions, disembodied voices, and a disturbing sense of some dark presence—or presences—around the farm cause her to further doubt her own perceptions. Coty turns out to be anything but what he initially seemed. And as time goes on, Elly reveals her deepest, most secretive side to Maya, which at first repulses her but eventually comes to fascinate her.

As the dark torrents of Elly's life sweep Maya up, the fates of both women become inextricably entwined.

Decker's authorial voice is generally strong, especially early in the novel, with an appealing focus on the eeriness of the setting and the gradual deepening of the mysteries around the farm. Her portrayal of the characters leans toward the utilitarian, with dialogue being the primary conveyor of emotion and motivation, mostly to good effect, though at times the characters' laconic responses to increasing preternatural chaos challenge the reader's grip on the tale's internal logic. The climax, while almost cathartic, suffers from too skeletal a rendering of both external and internal conflicts.

Despite these occasional weak elements, A Summer With the Dead overall succeeds as an engaging supernatural mystery. Three and a half out of five Damned Rodan's Dirty Firetinis.

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