The Realm of Secondhand Souls

Sandra Shea, Author Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH) $23 (256p) ISBN 978-0-395-83810-5
Philadelphia journalist Shea's mild, well-meaning though frustratingly stilted debut novel pits an orphan girl against her troubled older cousin. In a halfhearted nod to magical realism, Shea conjures up a world of half-familiar but unnamed places, and assigns the child Novena a crew of eccentric aunts, all of whom have vaguely Spanish-sounding names (Elegia, Quivera, Annaluna). When Novena's mother, Catorza, dies giving birth to a baby boy who also does not survive, Novena stops speaking; she is brought up by Elegia, who is the plain, resentful aunt with four wild sons she cannot control. Novena's childhood in the town of Nile Bay is marked by watching her cousins enact ""science projects"" in the woods; finding her voice, she is both attracted to and repulsed by the untamed, threatening youngest boy, Zan, who was ""born to trouble."" As a teenager, Zan commits a murder that only Novena knows about, and the novel, finding its purpose at last, follows Novena's tortuous progress as she gathers the strength to bring the deed to light. Caught shoplifting in a secondhand shop, Novena falls in love with the owner, Whit, who helps her trust herself. Whit has a theory about the objects in his store, namely that the ""soul was in the dirt that covered things"" and that the ""dirt would give the object something of second life."" Affecting a knowing tone, Shea's novel is chock-full of similar platitudes. Despite some successful touches, such as great-aunt Annaluna's attempt to ""punish"" the shoes that she believes killed Catorza, or the description of what Novena figures out is the ""ultimate smell of boys,"" Shea's mannered prose fails to add resonance to her story. 3-city author tour. (Jan.)
Reviewed on: 01/17/2000
Release date: 01/01/2000
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