After Life
By Rhian Ellis
Viking Books, 288 pp.

Everything about Naomi Ash is a bit haphazard. Her clothes are dowdy; sheforgets to wash her hair, sometimes even to bathe. At 31, she's nevergotten used to driving, and when she needs groceries or other essentials sheclumsily pilots a borrowed car to the outskirts of her small, upstate NewYork town. For the most part, she lives the daily grind of her life as ifshe barely notices it. She engages in small talk, but nothing more, withroommates and neighbors who regard her as a loner or an "ice queen," if atall. When a wannabe boyfriend tries unsuccessfully to chip away her frosty,uninterested exterior, he finally despairs: Either you're an awfully dullgirl, he tells her, or you've got an awfully big secret.

Naomi doesn't answer. But readers of Rhian Ellis's "After Life" know what thesecret is. Tenyears ago, Naomi killed the man she loved, rolled him into atarp, loaded him into a rickety boat, and rowed him across the lake near herupstate New York home. On the other side, she dug a grave--a pretty shallowone--and that was that. She left him there, and attempted to go on with lifeas usual in a town she had lived in since childhood. But Naomi's secretgnaws at her--especially after her ex-lover's bones are found and aninvestigation ensues.

This could all be the making of a pretty standard psychological suspensetale, but in the hands of first-time novelist Ellis, Naomi's story blossomsinto an insightful exploration of truth and fraud, life and death, believingand not believing.

All Naomi had ever wanted, it seems, was a normal life. She was born in NewOrleans to an unknown father and a mother who was a medium--a believer inthespirit plane who nonetheless enchanted customers by levitating objects withinvisible strands of horsehair, even dressing the young Naomi up to appearas the spirit of a mournful customer's dead daughter. In the midst ofséances and all manner of otherworldly events, Naomi took refuge in thenormalcy of her grandfather, whose house she and her mother shared.

Then one day, Naomi's mother decided to toss a few items in the car and moveherself and her daughter to Train Line--a community of mediums andspiritualists in upstate New York. There, the streets were lined withslightly ramshackle gingerbread houses. Mediums plied their trade at weeklycommunity gatherings. The majority of townsfolk made their living off summer tourists who came to Train Line to glimpse their own futures orcommune with their dead loved ones. And Naomi's mother writhed on parlortables, "groaning like a cow with a stomach ache" while spirits of the deadpossessed her. Later, she launched her very own radio show, the "MotherGalina Psychic Hour."

Like a lawyer's child who grows up wanting to become anything but a lawyer,Naomi Ash grew up wanting to be anything but a conduit for the dead. Yet shelives a life ruled equally by whirlwind events and extreme inertia, and thetwo conspired to keep her in Train Line. As a schoolgirl, she was extremelylonely until she discovered that faked supernatural experiences drewclassmates to her like ants to watermelon. Then, to her surprise, she had areal spiritual experience, and she decided to follow in her mother'sfootsteps, eventually hanging out her own shingle and gaining a reputationas one of the most astute mediums in town.

Still, much of her life bordered on the mundane. She ate toast everymorning. To supplement her income, she worked at a convenience store, tookon a baby-sitting job, and catalogued item after item in the town's dustyand rarely used library-museum. All was fairly normal, except the visitingspirits and the buried bones--two entities that, as the suspense tale unfolds, come to define Naomi's morality and spirituality in unusual ways.

As bizarre a protagonist as Naomi might be, she becomes an everywoman inEllis's deftly told tale. Through her, readers enter a world where belief isa decision you make, spiritualism is the mortal's answer to death, real orimagined, and truth and fraud are soul mates--two necessary parts to aslightly indefinable whole. Muses Naomi, "A good medium will always tell yousomething true before telling you something less than true--it only takes onetrue sail to float your ship of lies around the world." Or, sometimes asNaomi learns, vice versa.