A flawed yet undeniably compelling first novel Sep 27, 2003
David L. Howells' Vanessa is an interesting book in many ways. The concept and general outline of the story are delightfully innovative, but the book does read like an author's first novel (which it is), and this lessens its impact on the reader. I really could not get a good sense of what the novel was about until I began the journey myself. The back cover describes Vanessa in these words: "Past, present and future blend into a supernatural suspense thriller of ghost boosters and the American Civil War." The opening chapters slip back and forth between the future and the past, giving us glimpses of an obviously important moment toward the end of the War Between the States while acquainting us with the central characters of this future history. The book is built around the character of Ryan David Fitzgalen, the mysterious benefactor of one Allen Carl Hawthorn. Ryan, we learn, is a unique individual; his participation in a Philadelphia Project-like test during World War II left him with the ability to see and converse with ghosts (as well as a remarkably slow aging process). Allen is given the opportunity to join the Fitzgalen "family" after his twenty-first birthday, an opportunity which he and his mother embrace with open arms. The group devotes its time, wealth, and energy toward helping spirits still bound to this earth make the move on to whatever afterlife awaits them. The most helpful ally the Fitzgalen gang has is Vanessa, a ghost whom Ryan met and bonded with at the time his newfound gifts were miraculously bestowed upon him.
The Family, which grows as the story progresses, has set its sights on its toughest challenge yet. Mad Annie is a Southern woman whose two children were accidentally trampled by Union soldiers just before she was raped (quite intentionally) and killed by one of those same men in the latter stages of the War. Her anger and hatred was so great that she somehow managed to bring death upon all of those Union soldiers and entrap them in her own private purgatory. Day in and day out for over two centuries, the fateful day is replayed; Annie's children are killed again and again, and the soldiers struggle mightily (but with only rare individual successes) to escape the vengeful woman's eternal punishment. The Fitzgalen Family and Vanessa in particular are determined to save all of these poor spirit victims (mother, children, and soldiers all) and grant them the eternal piece they have been denied for over two hundred years. All of this makes for an exciting, if rather drawn-out tale.
I must repeat the fact that I truly enjoyed this book, but the writing is something of a handicap at times. None of these characters ever seems real, and most of what happens evokes images of puppets being manipulated by strings that, far from being inconspicuous, proclaim their existence in fantastic neon colors. The dialogue is often forced and artificial, and the changes witnessed in the Fitzgalen family group dynamic over such a short period of time just strike me as far too extreme. Howells also likes to describe the emotions of his characters in the sappiest of ways; hardly two pages go by without the entire family, men and women, breaking down and bawling over some story or piece of information; on the flip side, they fall into hysterics for the unlikeliest of reasons time and time again. An exchange of pleasantries can be enough to make two of the characters lifelong friends, and new recruits seem far too easily convinced of Ryan's undeniably unlikely life's story. Yet, despite a few weak spots in the plot and the kinds of characterization and dialogue issues I have raised, there is something real and undeniably interesting about all of these people and the story of their campaign to rescue the souls of those trapped in this purgatory of one mad woman's making. I look forward to following the adventures of the Fitzgalen Family in future books, and I am quite confident that the "first novel" issues I have with this first book in the series will fall by the wayside as Howells continues to hone the craft of a potentially notable writer.
Unique and surprising Jul 31, 2002
This unique and challenging work is in part a mirror held up to the worst of which humanity is capable, and, in part, a joyous celebration of the best we have to offer.
Set in the not-too-distant future, with society functioning pretty much as we recognise it, but with the addition of some convincing next-generation technological devices, 'Vanessa' equally manages to be a historical novel, a love story, a ghost story and a moral tale, all deftly woven into a cohesive whole.
A family - mother and son - are rebuilding their lives after the tragic loss of the boy's father in a traffic accident. They are strong, intelligent and loving people, and, despite some resentment towards the new stepfather on the part of the son - and, more subtly, on the mother's part, too - they are coping well. But a wildcard is thrown into their existence in the form of a still-living ancestor, his long dead but ever-present wife, his tough, ingenious, feisty secretary and their cheerfully unscrupulous, steadfast lawyer. Their meeting changes everything, revealing that the boy, currently pursuing a perfectly conventional college education, is chosen for a destiny of which he never would have conceived.
The future and past are strongly entwined in this novel, and the parallel plot introduces us to a woman who was raped and murdered after seeing her children killed by Yankee soldiers during the American Civil War. Her desire for revenge extends beyond the grave, and beyond sanity, decency or maternal love.
Enter our intrepid family of assorted heroes, determined to set right what went wrong hundreds of years ago, and has been going wrong ever since.
Themes of war, peace, slavery and prejudice are touched upon as the plot progresses, and themes of loyalty, courage and love are ever-present. There is abundant humour and much tragedy (I challenge you to read this book with dry eyes, or without laughing out loud). But the most powerful and abiding theme of the novel is a demonstration of forgiveness and reconciliation that, to my mind, transcends humanity and approaches the sublime.
Despite Vanessa's 'first novel' status, its authorship displays confidence and mastery. A convincing dual plot line, much suspense, lively attention to detail, exceptionally realistic dialogue and a refreshingly honest take on human emotion kept me enthralled and increasingly breathless from the very first page to the very last. Don't let this one pass you by.
"Vanessa" by Dr. David Howells Jul 9, 2002
I thoroughly enjoyed "Vanessa" by Dr. David Howells. The concept was an original twist on the typical 'ghost' stories currently available by other authors.
I particularly enjoyed the way the characters interacted and their sense of humor with each other. The puns in the book were good and they made me laugh out loud.
I also liked the way the Ryan and Vanessa acted with each other. I've known married couples who talk and act very much like them.
I hope that Dr. Howells will share more adventures of the Fitzgalen team with us. I'm hoping that Allen's girlfriend Melissa is back to continue her growth to become another member of the team.
ghosts from the distant past May 11, 2002
"Vanessa" is built around a unique idea: survival of a Civil War ghost to the present-objective, revenge. Along with this theme go the ghosts of a group of Civil War soldiers, stuck in time. Attempting to resolve the contretemps with the collaboration of his great, great grandson is a man (not a ghost) who has survived and can see and communicate with ghosts due to a Navy experiment aimed at making ships invisible to radar (somewhat reminiscent of "The Philadelphia Experiment"). The book's pace is leisurely, as the dialogue realistically deals quite a bit with day-to-day matters and interpersonal relationships. There is also a good deal of internal debate by the various characters. Since there are so many, a cast of characters at the end is helpful. The book is the first in a series of four.
Great Story Jan 4, 2002
This book was definitely worth the wait. The characters are real with very distinct personalities. I found my self drawn into their world and wondering with each chapter what was going to happen next. There was plenty of laughter and tears. I honestly couldn't put it down until the end. It really is an excellent story.