Enough Tupperware
by Leslie Lawrence '72

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After Life
By Rhian Ellis '90
Viking Press, 2000

Reviewed by Dan Chaon, visiting assistant professor of creative writing


Rhian Ellis's striking first novel manages rather miraculously to be both a page-turning thriller of psychological suspense and an acute and tender character study. The book begins with murder
--"First I had to get his body into the boat," is the eye-catching opening line--and proceeds from there to pull us into a sympathetic collusion with the murderess and protagonist, Naomi Ash. "A lonely life is a crime without witnesses," thinks Naomi at one point, "It is a movie playing in a locked theater; can you ever really be sure what happens in it? Can you be sure that it happens at all?" It's an apt question. As a professional spiritualist medium, Naomi is continually caught between the knowledge of her sometimes fraudulent methods and her hopeful faith that perhaps she really does have a gift for communicating with the dead. Perhaps, she thinks, "belief was a decision I could make." But her doubts set her apart from the other residents of Train Line, New York, a tiny town made up of members of the Church of Spiritualist Studies, a collection of New Agers, hypnotists, and fortune tellers, among whom Naomi is a gloomy outsider. For many years, her crime remains a secret. But then the body is discovered, and the careful and aloof life Naomi has built for herself begins to unravel.

This is a book that rediscovers the old-fashioned story-telling virtues of a writer like Shirley Jackson. Like Jackson's wonderful novels, After Life draws us in with a carefully crafted mixture of charm and dread. It's the kind of novel that evokes the supernatural power a good book once had over a reader, the kind of book that you might have curled up with in an easy chair when you were 12, unable to stop reading, not wanting it to end; when you lift your head after the last page, the light has changed, and a ghostly flutter has lodged in your chest.

Rhian Ellis lives in Ithaca, New York, with her husband, author J. Robert Lennon, and two sons, Owen and Oliver. She holds an MFA from the University of Montana.