SARAH FLANNERY MURPHY The Possessions. Reviewed by Sally Nimon
The Possessions is an unsettling debut conjuring a world where the dead may speak through the living.
What makes you you? Is it the lipstick you wear? The way you talk? An unselfconscious moment captured in a photograph? Or is it the impression you leave on other people? Their interpretations of what you do or say? And what if those impressions are not what you intended? Which is the ‘real’ you – what you said, or what others thought you said? What – when everything else has been stripped away – is the essence of ‘you’? And how long does this continue to exist after your physical being has gone?
In the world of The Possessions, created by first-time novelist Sara Flannery Murphy, these questions are more than mere existential musings on the nature of reality. Rather, they are very real concerns for employees and clients of the Elysian Society, a mysterious organisation through which the bereaved can contact a loved one who has passed to the other side.
The process is deceptively simple: through the use of a drug known as a lotus, the mediums (or ‘bodies’) can set their own selves aside, almost literally stepping back to allow themselves to be inhabited by the soul of a husband, wife, daughter, friend, or other associate of the client for as long as the effects of the drug last.
The rules of the Society are also simple. The services of a body can only be accessed by someone with a connection to the target. Strangers – even those seeking answers to unsolved murders – are turned away. Suicides are to be left in peace. No physical contact is permitted between a body and a client while the possession is underway. The rules are not arbitrary, but have been developed following unfortunate trial and error and are intended to ensure the safety of the bodies.
Nevertheless, the results are complex. We sense this from the unsettling nature of the opening line, when the protagonist, Eurydice, calmly informs her readers that ‘the first time I meet Patrick Braddock, I’m wearing his wife’s lipstick’. It’s the wrong shade for her, we learn, too deep, too strong, too purple, as ‘severe as a bloodstain’. Later, Mrs Renard, the owner of the Elysian Society, tells us that most bodies don’t last very long, finding the strain too great. Eurydice has been the exception, continuing to work at the Society apparently unaffected for five years. Yet she is a first-person narrator who remains elusive for most of the story, more of an absence than a presence.
For example, when listening to a radio announcer describe the discovery of Hopeful Doe, an unidentified body left in an abandoned house, the details don’t shock or horrify Eurydice but ‘anchor me, comforting in their unremarkable ugliness’. On waking one morning, ‘I try to recall what happened after I arrived home [but] my memories turn dimmer’. As she goes to the bathroom, the only signs of life are those of other people:
Somewhere down the hall a neighbour plays music … I’m surrounded by … Theatrical sex moans, cigarette smoke, bitter arguments, energetic thumps of TV.
Little if anything of herself is allowed to seep through.
And Eurydice is not the only character in Possessions who struggles with a lack of identity. Hopeful Doe is found clad in only a nondescript blue sundress, leaving her reduced to nothing but a ‘wistful police sketch [r]endered in pencil lines’. Sylvia, the deceased woman whose lipstick Eurydice wears, is described by her friend Viv mainly in terms of how her own life was affected:
‘When we lost Sylvia I’d just found out I was pregnant … I asked her to be the baby’s godmother … And Henry, my husband? He works with Patrick. We met through the Braddocks.’
Then there is the question of Patrick himself. What kind of man seeks conversation with his wife after her death? Is he sensitive? Lonely? Grieving? Gloating? A murderer who eluded justice and is returning to taunt his victim even after death? The more time Eurydice spends in his presence the less confidence she feels in the answers.
The Possessions is an unsettling read. Uncomfortable questions are raised that linger beyond the narrative. There is a sense of the world being slightly off-kilter, like a disturbing vision glimpsed from the corner of the eye that vanishes when viewed directly. But the story absorbs at the same time as it confronts, drawing the reader into this world that might be just a bit too close for comfort. Sara Flannery Murphy displays an impressive level of skill here, even if the ending does not quite lead to a successful resolution. However, I will watch out for her future works with keen interest. Just as soon as I work out who, exactly, ‘I’ am.
Sara Flannery Murphy The Possessions Scribe 2017 PB 354pp $32.99
Sally Nimon once graduated from university with an Honours degree majoring in English literature and has hung around higher education ever since. She is also an avid reader and keen devourer of stories, whatever the genre.
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