David L. Howells,
(Protea, 2001)

David L. Howells' first novel Vanessa is overwritten with parenthetical thought processes and inundated with really corny puns. Fortunately, the story is fresh and intriguing enough to overcome the parentheses, and I tend to like puns.

The novel, which promises to be the first in The Vanessa Tetrology, introduces an ensemble cast of friendly ghostbusters who aim to assist lost souls in completing their journey to the other side. Patriarch Ryan Fitzgalen participated in a World War II Navy experiment that went awry and left him with clairvoyance to communicate with certain wandering dead people and a very slow aging process. With the help of his sometimes disembodied wife Vanessa, a spunky office manager and a curmudgeonly lawyer, Ryan has aided more than 500 souls for close to a century.

Now in 2040, the Fitzgalen crew, in recruiting mode, attempts to assimilate a few somewhat astounded new members while aiding a platoon of Civil War foraging troops caught in a Groundhog Day cycle of repeated marauding.

The novel oscillates among the Union troop's daily rides, Ryan and Vanessa's flashbacks to the mid 1900s and the 21st century, a 200-year span that strangely makes sense. It also allows for allusions to popular culture of the 1970s and '80s, which then need to be explained to the youngsters in the character list.

Vanessa herself is the most intriguing character. With her wicked sense of humor and poltergeisting trickery, she keeps Ryan and his cohorts on their toes. But she's also as lost as the ghostly Annie and her children on the plantation. Since Vanessa only assumes her first name because of a bracelet she wears and she knows nothing of her own purpose in life or death, she is trapped in a purgatory of wandering. She hopes to know someday, but risks leaving her earthly love if she finds out too much about herself.

The plot is complicated with split personalities, women seeking various levels of vengeance, and a rogue soldier who might not deserve redemption. Flush with twists and surprises, Vanessa shows promise for Howells and his four-book series.

[ by Julie Bowerman ]
Rambles: 16 June 2002

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