book review

The Possessions by Sara Flannery Murphy

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The Possessions is the perfect example of how a book’s readability isn’t necessarily an indicator of its goodness. I read this book in a day, but I think I’ll forget most of it in just a few weeks.

It kept me engrossed. The book presents the mysterious Edie (not her real name), a woman with a foggy past and no future, living in some location at some point in time. The world Sara Flannery Murphy has constructed seems to be exactly like ours, except with the addition of a single invention: The lotus pills. They take a person out of her body, so that dead spirits can possess her for short periods of time. Unsurprisingly, someone’s made a business out of it, hiring people to become “bodies” for grieving clients. Mostly women in skimpy dresses take pills, blackout, and are possessed by dead wives, mistresses, and girlfriends.

The business is very much reflective of a brothel, and at the center of the novel are core feminist issues about women’s self-image, identity, and men’s abilities to treat individual women like disposable placeholders, viewing them only through the lens of comfortable, compliant roles, like “mother” or “girlfriend.” It even addresses the issue of the criminalization of pregnant women.

But ultimately I was disappointed. The ending was too neat, with implications that made me deeply uncomfortable. Although one of the themes was letting go of the past and allowing yourself to grieve without getting lost in nostalgia, no particular character ever seems to internalize that lesson. There were a lot of themes that were explored without being directly addressed, and the story is weaker because of it. General misogyny was explored – but no particular man was ever confronted with it, or even accused of being a misogynist. In fact I’m not sure how much the feminist themes aren’t just coming from me, because I view everything through a feminist lens.

And ultimately the story’s drama relied on the overused cliché of a woman with paper-thin character development who unravels because of a miscarriage.

I’m young, and I’m not a mother. But almost every mother I’m close to has had a miscarriage, and at least three women in my life are barren and childless. All of these women have rich, full lives, and their sanity is in no way threatened by their reproductive struggles.

Having a character reduce herself to her ability to breed is something we do over and over again. I find it problematic because this is an archetype that I see no evidence of in real life. This woman does not exist. So why is she in so many of our stories?

Murphy is a great writer. She inserts poesy and sensuality into her prose. I’ll definitely be picking up her next novel, but I hope it’s better than this debut. The Possessions would have been improved with stronger character development, less clichéd drama, and some of the thrill that the back cover promised us.

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