After Life
By Rhian Ellis
Viking Books, 288 pp.

Everything about Naomi Ash is a bit haphazard. Her clothes are dowdy; she forgets to wash her hair, sometimes even to bathe. At 31, she's never gotten used to driving, and when she needs groceries or other essentials she clumsily pilots a borrowed car to the outskirts of her small, upstate New York town. For the most part, she lives the daily grind of her life as if she barely notices it. She engages in small talk, but nothing more, with roommates and neighbors who regard her as a loner or an "ice queen," if at all. When a wannabe boyfriend tries unsuccessfully to chip away her frosty, uninterested exterior, he finally despairs: Either you're an awfully dull girl, 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 the secret is. Ten years ago, Naomi killed the man she loved, rolled him into a tarp, loaded him into a rickety boat, and rowed him across the lake near her upstate New York home. On the other side, she dug a grave--a pretty shallow one--and that was that. She left him there, and attempted to go on with life as usual in a town she had lived in since childhood. But Naomi's secret gnaws at her--especially after her ex-lover's bones are found and an investigation ensues.

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

All Naomi had ever wanted, it seems, was a normal life. She was born in New Orleans to an unknown father and a mother who was a medium--a believer in the spirit plane who nonetheless enchanted customers by levitating objects with invisible strands of horsehair, even dressing the young Naomi up to appear as the spirit of a mournful customer's dead daughter. In the midst of séances and all manner of otherworldly events, Naomi took refuge in the normalcy 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 move herself and her daughter to Train Line--a community of mediums and spiritualists in upstate New York. There, the streets were lined with slightly ramshackle gingerbread houses. Mediums plied their trade at weekly community gatherings. The majority of townsfolk made their living off summer tourists who came to Train Line to glimpse their own futures or commune with their dead loved ones. And Naomi's mother writhed on parlor tables, "groaning like a cow with a stomach ache" while spirits of the dead possessed her. Later, she launched her very own radio show, the "Mother Galina 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 she lives a life ruled equally by whirlwind events and extreme inertia, and the two conspired to keep her in Train Line. As a schoolgirl, she was extremely lonely until she discovered that faked supernatural experiences drew classmates to her like ants to watermelon. Then, to her surprise, she had a real spiritual experience, and she decided to follow in her mother's footsteps, eventually hanging out her own shingle and gaining a reputation as one of the most astute mediums in town.

Still, much of her life bordered on the mundane. She ate toast every morning. To supplement her income, she worked at a convenience store, took on a baby-sitting job, and catalogued item after item in the town's dusty and rarely used library-museum. All was fairly normal, except the visiting spirits 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 in Ellis's deftly told tale. Through her, readers enter a world where belief is a decision you make, spiritualism is the mortal's answer to death, real or imagined, and truth and fraud are soul mates--two necessary parts to a slightly indefinable whole. Muses Naomi, "A good medium will always tell you something true before telling you something less than true--it only takes one true sail to float your ship of lies around the world." Or, sometimes as Naomi learns, vice versa.

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