Review: The Dark Between by Sonia Gensler

The Dark Between by Sonia Gensler. Knopf, 2013. Currently Available.

16217444Genre: Historical Fiction, Ghost Story

Face Value: This cover is suitably creepy, period appropriate and intriguing. While it’s not the most original I’ve ever seen, it’s more than acceptable.

Does it Break the Slate? For the most part, absolutely. Kate and Elsie are very different young women, but both given the space to be interesting, multi-faceted characters. And Gensler does a nice job of presenting the challenges of being a young woman in this time period without falling into traps of either presentism or over-simplicity.

Who would we give it to? The back cover suggests giving this book to fans of Jennifer Donnelly and Saundra Mitchell and I can’t help but agree with that statement. Slightly supernatural historical fiction – if you have a reader who likes ghost stories, this is a great offering.

Review:  It’s the turn of the century in Cambridge, England and spiritualism has captured everyone’s attention, from believers to skeptics. Kate Poole works for a medium, helping to create fake spirits, but when she is revealed during a seance she loses her job. She appeals to one of the seance attendees for help and finds herself in residence at Summerfield, a woman’s college run by the progressive Thompson family. Along with Elsie, the Thompson’s niece who suffers from a mysterious illness and Asher, a friend of the family who is estranged from his father, Kate finds herself caught up in a mystery that may or may not involve spirits.

Gensler does a wonderful job of setting the tone for this book. The anxiety and curiosity about spirits and ghosts and the possibilities within is well built into the narrative and the world feels rich and complex.

All three of our protagonists, Kate, Elsie and Asher are terrifically well developed. Kate is the one we would normally align ourselves with, the scrappy orphan who has to rely on her wits and pluck to survive. And sure enough, Kate is a classic Slatebreaker. She faces her circumstance with resolve and determination. But she also emotionally connected to the people around her, not a flat heroine. And Elsie, the frail ingenue with visions of spirits that plague her is not as timid as she seems. She shows real strength, especially as she begins to accept her abilities. Even amidst the fear she has lived with since childhood, her passion for photography and loyalty towards her friends pushes her to be surprisingly bold.

She’s also an addict, a plot detail that is really well executed. Since she started having visions, Elsie has relied on the drug chlorodyne to dull her senses and stop her from seeing ghosts. And when she realizes over the course of the book, what a problem the drug has become for her, its not easy to let it go. Kate, who lost her mother to the same addiction, becomes a strong ally for Elsie. This was a common problem for women of this era, and I really appreciated Gensler’s approach.

Asher, our third protagonist is also a fascinating character. He’s deeply flawed, and I like that Gensler let this character be stubborn, jealous and impertinent, while still making him surprisingly likable and sympathetic.

However despite its wonderful protagonists, there are frustrating moments in the book where “other” girls are seen as silly frivolous things, unlike our super special leading ladies. This is an unfortunately common thing that we see ALL THE TIME in books about women, where we get these awesome characters but have to be reminded how different they are. For example:

“As it turned out, Dr. Spring’s daughters were pretty and attentive, but nothing to give fright to a man. If the doctor had indeed trained them, it was to make them biddable. They asked Asher thoughtful questions. They nodded appreciatively as he spoke, even when he struggled to express himself. They laughed prettily when he tried to be witty. It was nothing like being around Kate and Elsie.”

It’s small moments, and it doesn’t ruin the book for me, but it’s always bothersome and disappointing to notice. Asher doesn’t get called on his sexist assumptions, and we never hear from the Spring sisters again so we’re left to assume that the reader is expected to think as little of these women as he does.

The mystery itself is resolved quickly, but with satisfying complexity. It seems that Gensler is leaving the door open for future books, which I would absolutely be interesting in reading.

Reviewed from library copy

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