Tuesday, September 03, 2013

Book review: Help for the Haunted by John Searles

Fourteen-year-old Sylvie has always been a good girl and is extremely bright, but her life is far from easy. She is an orphan in the care of her neglectful 18-year-old sister Rose. When her parents were murdered the previous winter, Sylvie was there. She told the police she saw their attacker, but she is actually not sure who it was. She also lied to cover for Rose, telling the police she had been at home at the time when she hadn’t been.

Before the horrible turn of events, life was not easy either. Her parents were well-known paranormal investigators, which earned Sylvie derision from her junior-high peers. A local reporter had written a book about her parents which concluded they were frauds, and Rose’s behavior had been so out of control, she had been sent to a special school over the summer.

The story, told from Sylvie’s point of view, alternates between the present--nine months after the murder--and the past, as Sylvie recounts her family’s history. We learn things as she does, which is slowly. Unfortunately, the switch comes just as the narrative gains momentum.

I found Help for the Haunted both compelling and maddening. I was drawn on, especially at the end when I couldn’t put it down, but it was a difficult book to read. Sylvie, who tries always to be the good girl, is surrounded by adults who let her down. Rose is especially bad to Sylvie after their parents are gone, practically starving her sister and never being truthful with her. We finally find out Rose’s motivation at the end, but it doesn’t excuse her awful behavior. Sylvie has to find the strength within to save herself.

In the larger picture, Help is an examination of the phenomenon of ghost hunters and demonologists. Sylvie doesn’t know whether to believe in her parents’ profession or not, and she is not alone; they are very convincing. Rather, her father is very convincing, and her mother does not contradict him because after all, they do actually help people. This family was headed for trouble from the start.

I wanted to love Help for the Haunted and kept reading it even though found it frustratingly overwritten. I kept thinking of the late Elmore Leonard’s advice to cut out everything people skip. I think Leonard would have cut this book to half its size, and then it would have a story that really moved. I also wish the author had also found a way to imbue the characters surrounding Sylvie with a little more human kindness. Then perhaps I wouldn’t feel quite so haunted by the book.

No comments: