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Review: Lost Among the Living, by Simone St. James
NAL, 2016. 318 pp. $15

For three years, Jo Manders has struggled with the loss of her husband, Alex, who flew for the RAF, and whose airplane crashed in German territory in 1918. The verdict of missing, presumed dead leaves her in limbo, which is painful enough. It also leaves her without a widow’s pension, which poses financial hardship, especially since she pays for the institution where her psychotic mother resides. (Her father, she never knew.) So when Alex’s aunt, Dottie Forsyth, offers Jo a position as a companion, the distraught young woman gets rid of nearly all Alex’s belongings and accepts.

Airco D.H. 9A, part of the infant RAF, ca. 1918 (courtesy WIkimedia Commons, public domain)

What she hasn’t reckoned on is how difficult Dottie is and how impossible to talk to. She calls Jo “Manders,” as if she were a servant rather than a relative by marriage, and denies any emotion, as if it were the influenza pandemic revisited. There’s also the matter of Alex’s late, mentally disturbed cousin, Frances, who died plunging off the roof of the Forsyth manse in Sussex, at age fifteen, during the war. As happens with such tragedies among the gentry, rumors fly in town about the dead girl. To wit: She’s still alive, kept in chains, goes one story. No; she’s dead, and her ghost haunts the woods, scaring children who play there. Or it’s Frances’s dog that does the haunting, a monster more like, that can tear a human into pieces — and did so, once.

Lost Among the Living therefore sounds like Jane Eyre meets The Hound of the Baskervilles. If you like, you can throw in Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca, because of Jo’s employment as a companion, and because her married name resembles Manderley, the mansion in that story. So the novel under discussion here evokes famous literary bloodlines, which implies a responsibility. In large measure, St. James meets it.

Normally, I avoid Gothic fiction because so much of it relies on melodrama. I also have no patience for the supernatural or paranormal or whatever euphemism you want to use for ghosts playing field hockey in the attic. So how did Lost Among the Living rope me in and keep me reading?

Easy. St. James is a very skilled novelist, and her psychological insights, gift for characterization, and descriptive pen need no doors slamming by themselves to create suspense. She’s not afraid to linger on emotional transitions, and because she keeps the reader engaged, the narrative still moves at an enviable clip. From the first, she draws you in, creating Jo as a sympathetic character. Consider this early passage, when the young widow thinks about what returning to England will mean after she has spent a dreadful three-month tour of the continent with Dottie:

I tried to picture primroses, hedgerows, and soft, chilled rain. No more hotels, smoke-filled dining cars, resentful waiters, or searches through unfamiliar cities for just the right tonic water or stomach remedy. No more sweltering days at the Colosseum or the Eiffel Tower, watching tourists blithely lead their children and snap photographs as if we’d never had a war. No more seeing the names of battlefields on train departure boards and wondering if that one — or that one, or that one — held Alex’s body forgotten somewhere beneath its newly grown grass.

We get grief, hoping for the relief she senses she won’t have, and the endless drudgery she’s suffered the past three months and fears will recur–all of it subtly rendered.

As a first-person narrator, Jo is naturally the deepest character, but her memories of Alex bring him alive, and Dottie comes through in all her hideous glory without being a cartoon. I’m particularly impressed that when Jo receives a terrible shock, she doesn’t immediately do a one-eighty to accommodate the change but fights it, internally and externally, creating tension. So many suspense novelists, or those of any stripe, devote a paragraph, a summation, to “explain” why and how the protagonist must “face facts” and do what they’d never wanted to do. Not here. Call this novel Gothic or whatever you like, but these characters have inner lives. That’s the reason it doesn’t even matter that I guessed what changes were coming; the real surprise is how Jo deals with it, which feels real.

This is why I could swallow Frances’s spectral presence in the story. I would have preferred otherwise, and I believe it was unnecessary — indeed, the mystery element she adds could have come from perfectly uncontrived, utterly earthbound sources. But that’s the author’s style, and she has a wide readership, so she knows better than to listen to me.

However, I do think she overreaches in the last fifty pages, setting up a final confrontation that again is no surprise and whose mechanics are hokey, completely unlike the rest of the novel. To repeat myself, I think St. James could have written the ending another way, so the choice seems more like holding up a banner for her genre than to achieve the desired conclusion. Still, I’m glad I read Lost Among the Living. Maybe you’d like it too.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.