The Possessions: A Novel

  • By Sara Flannery Murphy
  • Harper
  • 368 pp.

This modern-day mystery combines sci-fi sensibilities with a hint of ancient Greek influence.

The Possessions: A Novel

Sara Flannery Murphy’s debut novel, The Possessions, blends science fiction with the kind of mystery that depends on withholding information from the reader in order to achieve a surprise ending.

In an unnamed present-day American city, the novel’s narrator, Eurydice, works at the Elysian Society, where people come to contact their deceased loved ones. Employees, each known as a “body,” take the client into a room, examine photos and memorabilia of the deceased, then swallow a pill called a “lotus,” which temporarily transforms the employee into the dead person.

This channeling allows the client to converse with the deceased for about half an hour. Afterward, the body returns to its normal self, with no memory of the episode.

In violation of the rules, some bodies and clients find ways to extend their contact outside the society.

One of Eurydice’s clients, Patrick, is a man of movie-star good looks whose beautiful wife, Sylvia, has drowned. Eurydice is attracted to him and voluntarily becomes entangled with Sylvia beyond the confines of work, to the point where there are moments when she doesn’t recognize herself in the mirror. She has flashbacks, if they can be called that, to Sylvia’s memories, including her death.

Eurydice tells a coworker, Leander, that she is in love with Patrick, but to herself (and to the reader), she uses the word “lust.” Leander warns that Patrick may be dangerous — one of the red herrings that Murphy effectively weaves into the story. Further red herrings take the form of semi-parallel stories — one involving a murder, others having to do with bodies who join clients outside the Elysian Society.

Eurydice stalks Patrick and his friends Viv and Henry Damson, who were at the lake the weekend Sylvia drowned. She learns that Patrick and Sylvia’s marriage was not the perfection photographs suggest.

Patrick responds to Eurydice’s overtures, and they begin to see each other privately. Sometimes they make love with Eurydice as herself, sometimes she uses illicitly acquired lotus pills to bring up Sylvia.

Plot is Murphy’s strength. She builds her story block by block, event by event. Readers will likely persist until the end, if only to find an explanation of Eurydice’s actions.

With skill, Murphy creates ambiguity, which increases the mystery. What, exactly, happens when a body takes a lotus pill? Is Eurydice in charge of the channeling, or does she lose control to Sylvia? Is Patrick a threat to, or a victim of, Eurydice? Has Eurydice intended the final outcome all along, or did she simply take advantage of an evolving situation?

Murphy is not as skilled at drawing characters. Eurydice often says she has come to this city to escape her past, but Murphy reveals nothing about it until the “gotcha” ending. Even in a scene where Eurydice confesses her secrets to her boss, the reader is not allowed to hear them. We do not know how Eurydice feels or what she wants. She merely acts. This is a problem with the “hold-the-facts-for-the-surprise-ending” approach to a novel.

Secondary characters come to life only when Eurydice needs them; they are subordinate to the plot. Patrick seems to be a decent sort, but his personality is filtered through Eurydice, and we can barely see him. Suggestions that he might be dangerous are as plausible as the moments when he is sympathetic.

Murphy has named the bodies after figures in Greek mythology whose stories can be seen as relevant to the events of the novel. Eurydice, Thisbe, and Leander are associated with love and death; Pandora with the release of pestilence on earth; and Ananka with destiny or fate. We never learn their real names, not even Eurydice’s.

Murphy has trouble letting go of clunky metaphors. For example, in the middle of a conversation, a view of a watercolor hanging in a motel room is described as “meadows that appear bubbled, like burning plastic, a segment of sea as black as rotting fruit.”

A final word, about humor: In one odd scene, the sight of a purple plum causes Eurydice to laugh out loud for no apparent reason. But the humor becomes clear when one remembers that the couple who were at the lake when Sylvia drowned are named Damson, and that much is made of Sylvia’s purplish lipstick, which Eurydice wears frequently.  

Having identified that joke, one is tempted to look for others — perhaps the mythological names of the bodies, or the name of their boss, Mrs. Renard, a sly and dangerous woman.

Murphy has set herself an ambitious task with this novel. If the challenge is not perfectly met, she has nonetheless revealed abilities that will serve her well in her next book.

Alice V. Leaderman writes fiction, grows native plants, and hopes for snow. She and her husband will soon relocate from suburban Maryland to New England.

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