Good grief

Deborah Noyes’s séance in Captivity
By CLEA SIMON  |  June 9, 2010

LIFE GOES ON The grief-stricken stasis that Noyes describes nearly sinks her narrative.

Grief bogs one down, sapping energy and confusing even the simplest thoughts with the static of regrets. Small wonder, then, that Clara Gill, one of two heroines in Deborah Noyes's atmospheric Captivity, has been unable to do much of anything at all in the years leading up to the moody moment of this book. The no-longer-young only daughter of a noted anatomist, Clara has lost a beautiful lover. When we meet her in these pages, her elderly father has relocated them from England to Rochester, New York, in an attempt to start over, but his only daughter is intent on replaying her few days with the late Will and refuses to leave her room.

Captivity | By Deborah Noyes | Unbridled Books | 352 pages | $25.95
Despite her self-imposed solitude, life goes on. And the life that eventually comes to Clara is of an unusual sort. Maggie Fox, one of the storied Fox Sisters, is hired by Clara's father to help around the house — particularly with his stubborn daughter. In reality, the Fox Sisters were celebrities who won international fame for their supposed ability to communicate with the dead. But in 1848, when Clara and Maggie first meet, the sisters' career of rapping and tapping messages is just beginning to take off. Despite her preoccupation with her own loss, Clara is a skeptic, and Maggie resents the pretensions of the woman she thinks of as "Mad Clara." But something of Clara — her long-buried wit, her sophistication, her artistic talent — appeals to Maggie, particularly as the crowds start to gather. And Maggie's vivacity, even her annoying irreverence, begins to play on Clara as all the hushed sympathy of her father could not.

Not that there is much play: the action of this book is largely backstory, building up to the revelation of what happened to upset Clara's life. Much of the Fox Sisters' lives is well documented, and so Noyes is constrained by the facts of theaters filled and moves made, and most of what she gives us of Maggie's life is as internal as Clara's. (Fox Sisters Kate and Leah figure only peripherally.) Although she does a credible job of exploring family politics and the boredom of smart girls in 19th-century America, Noyes leaves the sisters' "gift" largely unexamined. What the world calls reality is less important — to these women — than what they spend their days thinking about.

In fact, when external stressors arrive — Clara's father becomes ill, Maggie acquires a suitor — they feel a little artificial. Surely, life does go on, and Clara's eventual emergence is made to seem reasonable. But the strength of this book is in its study of the enervation that holds both Clara and so many of Maggie's clients in its grip. And that's also its major weakness. Although Noyes writes with a poetic specificity — detailing the "tangy male smell of fresh-sawn wood," for example — she spends so much time circling the same worn memories that her narrative often comes to a halt. It's a complex problem: how to show stasis without sinking into it. But Noyes is only half successful, too often presenting beautiful scenes without any sense of purpose.

1  |  2  |   next >
Related: Authors talking: Spring readings in Boston, Interview: Sapphire speaks her mind, Authors strut their stuff, More more >
  Topics: Books , Entertainment, Books, Porter Square Books,  More more >
| More

Most Popular
Share this entry with Delicious

 See all articles by: CLEA SIMON