Cover image for After life : a novel
After life : a novel
Ellis, Rhian.
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Publication Information:
New York : Viking, 2000.
Physical Description:
292 pages ; 25 cm
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So begins After Life, a psychological suspense tale, set in a place that is a world of its own, out of time, & almost off the map. Born in New Orleans, Naomi Ash is raised by her mother, a medium who has schooled Naomi in parlor-trick quackery & the various methods used to tell customers what they most need to hear. A little magic, a little theatre, a little bending of the letter of the law lead mother & daughter to relocate hastily to Train Line--a strange, tiny hamlet of shabby, gingerbread-frilled cottages, card readers, table-levitators, "Message Services" dispensing advice to the desirous; low-rent "Psychic Faires" at the local Holiday Inn, & of course, "The Mother Galina Psychic Hour," (Naomi's mother's own radio enterprise). In this environment, Naomi Ash comes of age; comes to terms with her own nascent spiritual gifts--and begins to distinguish what might be her own true vision from fakery & fraud. Her skills pass the scrutiny of Train Line's Board, & she puts out a shingle of her own. Then, a young graduate student, Peter Morton, blows into town. And Naomi falls in love. Evocative, suspenseful & beautifully written, After Life introduces a truly original voice, utterly contemporary, but also a true storyteller in the classic sense.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Ellis' novel, in which the title refers both to the afterlife of eternity and the eternity endured by people for whom any real life is over, starts with the narrator, Naomi Ash, micromanaging the disposal of her lover's body. Naomi is a medium in the town of Train Line, New York (an actual town founded by Victorian spiritualists in the nineteenth century), who has an intriguingly ambivalent relationship to her craft, believing in contact with the spirit world yet despising herself for the theater and half-truth her business depends upon. The mystery here is not whodunit but why she did it. The beauty of this tale is that the reader grows more and more fond of the funny and insightful Naomi and her strange history, even though convinced that Naomi, in the tradition of Edgar Allan Poe, may be a convincing narrator who is completely mad. Ellis is riveting in his depiction of past and present spiritualism and in his construction of psychological suspense. --Connie Fletcher

Publisher's Weekly Review

The opening line of Ellis's debut novel, a psychological thriller, engages the reader like tossing a pork chop to a hungry dog: "First, I had to get his body into the boat." The intrigue is anchored and the suspense heightened by recurring themes of mysticism and the supernatural, centered on a complex, finely drawn mother and daughter relationship. Naomi Ash and her mother, Patsy (aka Madame Galina Ash), flee their hometown of New Orleans after Patsy's s‚ances cause some trouble with the police. They move to Train Line, N.Y., home to America's largest community of mediums and spiritualists, where Patsy hosts a radio show, The Mother Galina Psychic Hour. Patsy's psychic powers are only partly phony, and both she and Naomi give accurate psychic readings to clients. But while the mother often fakes it, Naomi is honestly searching for her true spiritual gifts, trying to determine whether she really has the power to contact the dead. The story alternates between present and past, revealing how Naomi met and fell in love with a graduate student from Oregon, Peter Morton. Details of his death come to light slowly as, 10 years later, in the present, his bones have been found. A police investigation closes in on Naomi, who has done all the wrong thingsÄkeeping Peter's personal effects, for instance. The story ends with a spooky calm rather than a bang, Ellis choosing an evocative, poetic and thoughtful denouement to an action-packed showdown. An excellent storyteller, this new author exhibits a gift for subtlety and suggestive understatement even when dealing with such potentially gaudy themes as clairvoyance, necromancy and murder. 5-city author tour. (July) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Meet Naomi Ash, a 31-year-old medium living in Train Line, a small town in western New York State that is America!s largest community of mediums and spiritualists. This first novel is being touted as a thriller, yet the story line is rather dull and inconsequential. Basically, the novel opens ten years ago with Naomi burying her boyfriend, Peter. The problem is that as the novel progresses, the reader loses interest in the big, suspenseful question, Why did Naomi kill Peter? Each chapter switches from the past to the present, as the police investigate the discovery of Peter!s body, yet Ellis never really gives us anything to sink our teeth into, just bits and pieces of the past that don!t add up. The main characters are underdeveloped, and the plot is not very interesting. This is a shame because the town of Train Line is a unique character in itself, bringing to mind a spooky Stephen King setting. Recommended only for large public libraries. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 3/15/00.]"Marianne Fitzgerald, P.L. of Charlotte & Mecklenburg Cty., NC (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter One 1 what I did First I had to get his body into the boat. This was more than ten years ago, and I've forgotten some of what came before and after, but that night and the following day I remember in extravagant detail. I had lain awake all night, trying to imagine how I might get him off the bed and down the stairs and into the rowboat, since he weighed at least a hundred and fifty pounds and might have gone stiff. My bed, I remember, felt absurdly uncomfort- able, as if someone had slipped walnuts and bolts into the layer just beneath the ticking, and there was something sharp and prickly, like hay, poking out of my pillow into my face and neck, yet I hardly moved all night. Every noise paralyzed me with fear. I had to force my eyes shut to think, literally hold them shut with my fingers, and in this way I worked through the problem--get- ting him into the boat--over and over again, allowing for varia- tions, so that by morning I was pretty sure I had it down. Once he was in the boat it would be easy.      When it was light I sat up and put my feet on the floor. The room rocked and tilted slightly, like a room in a fun house or a ship. Lack of sleep made me dizzy, which caused a sense of unre- ality that I found comforting, as if now I was finally asleep, and only dreaming. But the feeling did not last, and after a minute or two I found some clothes on the floor and got dressed. I had worn these same clothes the day before, and perhaps the day before that, and as a consequence they were limp and smelled a little like onions. I washed my face in the bathroom sink, used the toilet, and went downstairs.     In the kitchen I made myself a sandwich and put it in a plastic grocery bag, then got a small shovel from the back porch. It was the trowel I used in the garden, still caked with hard lumps of dirt. I cleaned it off as well as I could with my fingers, then gathered myself together and walked over to my mother's house.     Though it was still August it was getting cold in the mornings, and the grass was dewy, and a mist hung over the lake at the end of Fox Street. The air, when I breathed it, had a taste like cold lake water. Later, I knew, it would get hot and the wind would carry the smell of the ketchup factory from across the lake in Wallamee. That smell had always been a signal for me to dig out my leather shoes and wool skirts, that summer was ending and school was about to begin. Though I had been out of school for four years by that time, the smell still had the power to excite me, or more exactly, stimulate me. I had a tendency to be lazy in summers. It was a delicious feeling at first, but it cloyed. Fall aroused me to action, though I don't mean this as an excuse for what happened.     The boat--a battered metal rowboat with peeling green paint that had washed ashore on Train Line's little beach one day, and that no one else had wanted to claim--was in the garage behind my mother's house. The garage was rickety and packed with junk, but I kept my boat there because I had no storage space at my apartment. I took it out on the lake quite often, so I was pretty sure that anyone seeing me drag it down to the dock would not find it odd. I lugged the boat up to the back door, attached the hose to the outdoor faucet, and pretended to wash the hull. Water tributaried across the small dead lawn and puddled around the laundry pole. The sun, though it was barely up, burned the top of my head and made me feel spot-lit and uncomfortable, as if I was being watched. Just in case, I continued my charade: giving the hull another good rinse, winding the hose back up, smiling slightly. Then I got a blue tarpaulin and some nylon rope out of the garage and went inside to get Peter.     He was where I'd left him, of course, in the upstairs bedroom that had once been mine. When I was a little girl, I'd demanded red gingham wallpaper. It was still there. So were the shelf of paperbacks, the failed ant farm, the blue-flowered linoleum, and the rag rug made from my old dresses. It smelled of dust and dead wasps, the closed-in odor it always got in summer when I'd left the window shut. And another smell, a hot, difficult one I didn't want to acknowledge: Peter's smell. He smelled more powerfully like himself now that he was dead than he had when he was alive. It made me angry--suddenly and obscurely--that this had been done to my room, where I had once been so happy.     Peter was in bed. One of his feet, still in its worn brown shoe, stuck out from the blankets. I recalled closing his eyes when it happened--I was sure I had done it--I remembered that I couldn't look while I was doing it and that I had to turn away and find them by touch. But now one had opened up again. It stared milkily at the lightbulb on the ceiling. With my thumb I pushed the lid down again; this time it would stay only halfway shut. His mouth hung open, too, but there was nothing I could do about that except not look at it. It occurred to me then that I had not lost my mind, but had instead put it somewhere so far away and hard to reach that I had little hope of ever retrieving it.     Dragging him from the bed onto the tarpaulin, which I'd spread on the floor, was like pulling a long root from damp soil. I couldn't lift him, so I tugged him by his arm, then by his leg, and little by little extracted him from the bed. He hit the floor and the whole house shook. Again without looking at his face, I got him wrapped in the tarpaulin. By this time I was sweating. and having trouble catching my breath. I sat down to rest at the top of the narrow staircase and looked down into the living room below. Hardly any light made it past the drapes, but I could see the glint of the clock pendulum and the long-legged shape of the oscillating fan. Good-bye , I said to it. So long . I wasn't really going anywhere; I'd be coming back and this room would be exactly the same, but this ordinary fact was impossible to believe.     I had to push Peter down the stairs. He slid, like a large fish, about halfway, then I pushed him again. * * * I dragged him to the boat, tipped it onto its side, and rolled Peter into it, then hauled the boat the block and a half to the lake. Anyone looking might have noticed I had something bulky and heavy in it, but I was right to think no one would be out. Summer was almost over.     On the lake, I rowed hard, my feet braced somewhat awkwardly on either side of Peter. Mist still hung over the surface, and droplets clung to my eyelashes and hair. The lake had been carved by glaciers; it was long and slender as a crooked finger. I rowed the length for half an hour, then navigated my way through a narrow inlet. There were cattails here, and the wreck of an old beaver dam, but my boat was steady in the water and nimble, and I slipped right by.     I was going to a place I'd visited a few times as a teenager, at the end of the lake and up the shore a bit. In fact, once I'd brought Peter there for a picnic. It was a grassy clearing, hidden from boaters on the lake by a tree-covered spit of land. A little farther inland there was a dilapidated barn: the only sign of people anywhere around. At the edge of this clearing, about fifteen feet from shore, was where I planned to dig the hole.     I left Peter in the boat while I dug. I didn't care if the hole was very deep, just that it was long enough. Once when I was a child I tried burying a dead cat in a hole not big enough for it, and I still cannot forget pushing down on it to make it fit, pressing its head with my trowel. Its ears filled horribly with dirt. * * * It took all day. Though it was a clearing there were lots of rocks and roots I had to dig out, but I'd told myself all night that I would be patient, that I wouldn't do a rush job under any circumstances. At one point, a pair of fishermen floated around the spit. I lay in the weeds, looking at my dirty hands and praying they wouldn't find my boat, which was hidden in a stand of cattails. I could hear them talking.     "Too shady back here, man."     "You think?"     "Like the underside of my ass."     "Well. All right."     "I know this other place, back where we were."     "Whatever you say, man."     They floated off again.     The dirt, which was soft and wet, had a fetid odor. It was the smell the lake acquired in summer, sometimes, when the water fell and exposed the rank mud. It was an odor of such active decay that I felt reassured--the earth would absorb Peter in no time.     I couldn't eat the lunch I'd brought.     By mid-afternoon the hole was about four feet deep and five and a half feet long: the length of Peter Morton. I pulled the boat to shore--I was quite tired by this time, and shaking--tipped Peter onto the ground, then rowed out around the spit to make sure no one was coming. There was one boat on the lake, a speedboat, but it was far off and didn't appear to be headed in my direction, so I rowed the boat to shore again.     I realized, after I'd dragged Peter over to the hole and opened up the tarpaulin, that I should probably take his clothes off. People can be identified by their clothes; I had read this somewhere, or maybe seen it on a television mystery. The thought hit me with a wave of sickness, of almost incapacitating regret. I took his wallet from his pocket, put it in my lunch bag, then unbuttoned his shirt. I had to tear it to get it off over his arms. His pants were easier. I unzipped the fly and pulled them down, an action so familiar I could close my eyes and pretend for a moment that we were somewhere else, in any of the dozens of places we had made love. I quickly tugged off his briefs and rolled him into the hole.     Oh, Peter!     He lay facedown. He had pretty hair, black and wavy and shiny as an otter's. I couldn't bring myself to throw dirt on it. I couldn't do it to his narrow back, either, with its delicate, knobby spine and shadowed ribs. I was almost knocked over by an urge, then, to pull his face out of the muck and blow into his mouth, to clear the mud from his eyes and his nose and save him.     I turned and ran into the woods. I despaired that I would never get lost in them, that I would always be with myself, that the world was not big enough to swallow me whole. I wanted him to get up and be alive again; I wanted to fly apart. My forehead slammed and tore against the rough bark of a hickory tree, and the pain calmed me.     Wiping blood from my eyes, I filled the hole.     When it was all done, I threw my shovel and his clothes, weighted with stones, into the lake and walked up the rise to the old barn. Inside I found a wooden trough full of rainwater. I washed my hands and face as well as I could, then I lay down on a fallen beam, looking upward. Through the gapped boards of the roof, the sky was blue. I watched clouds slide by.     It was a ruined world. Copyright © 2000 Rhian Ellis. All rights reserved.