The Night of All Souls – Philippa Swan

Several different narratives, two interwoven tales of deception and intrigue, and a few good tips on landscape architecture. Maybe overcooked in parts but overall a fun read.

The long-deceased author Edith Wharton appears, to her surprise, in a room in the afterlife, accompanied by her husband, niece and various other contemporaries. She is there because a novella about her is about to be published, and her former editor has somehow summoned her to read the manuscript and decide whether to destroy it before it can be published. 

The afterlife is a fraught place – some of the other people there outlived Wharton by some years, so they are able to tell her some of the outcomes of her personal affairs and legacy – and it’s not all good news. There are a lot of secrets and unresolved issues between the various characters and they all come to the surface. But not too violently. One character throws a book at another at one point, but otherwise it’s all shocked looks, pearl-clutching and hurt silences. Actually there is an awful lot of this sort of minutely-observed detail, as if it’s a detailed screenplay for a TV play. I feel that Swan takes “show, don’t tell” to excess at times.

There is a story within the story too, because the characters take turns reading the new novella aloud. It’s about a woman writing a travel blog inspired by Wharton’s garden design career. So we also get the story within the story within the story, in the form of the blog entries. Since the novella takes place in the present day (and concerns a blog), Wharton and her friends have to be gently introduced to the Internet and more importantly to the dangers of online fame. The novella itself is pretty fun – I wonder if Swan started with that, before the complexities of Wharton’s life inspired the “afterlife” setting.

Much research has gone into this novel, as shown by the bibliography and the long list of quotation sources. Swan also provides an author’s note, where she says she has combined this non-fiction source material with Wharton’s fiction to provide – “at best – a general sense of authenticity, some specifics of scene, and the occasional hint of Wharton’s inner workings.” It also provides strong characterisations of Wharton’s companions in the afterlife, who were all real people. Most of them don’t come out too well, so I hope her treatment was fair.

I have only read one of Edith Wharton’s books – The House of Mirth – and I loved it. Next up, maybe The Reef or The Age of Innocence. And maybe even her book on Italian garden design.

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