David L. Howells,
Vanessa: Mended Harps
(Protea, 2003)

David L. Howells' Vanessa series is, I daresay, a unique one. The story is built around the Hawthorne Group, an ever-growing "Family" of individuals (present as well as deceased) dedicated to finding restless spirits on Earth and helping them take their delayed next step beyond. Over the course of the first four novels in the series (with Vanessa: Mended Harps being the fourth), the story has evolved somewhat as the size and know-how of the ever-growing organization of friends has expanded to almost unwieldy proportions.

This is most clearly evident in this particular novel by the fact that Vanessa herself, as well as her husband, the abnormally long-lived Ryan Fitzgalen, have become almost minor characters at this point in time. Vanessa is Ryan's former wife, a spirit who remained at her husband's side after her death. As the group's founding entity, Vanessa and her uniquely unusual skills served as the foundation upon which the Hawthorne Group/Fitzgalen family (as well as Howells' entire series) is built. In the previous book, Vanessa: All Heaven Breaks Loose, however, Vanessa became human once again, taking over the body of a female serial killer.

As is so often the case in this series, the events detailed in the previous book largely define the events that take place in the present one. Vanessa: All Heaven Breaks Loose was truly a remarkable novel, one in which the Family dealt with a deadly attack from rogue religious forces who interpreted the work of the Hawthorne family as the work of evil (with Ryan as the Antichrist himself). In the course of the attack, there were casualties, but it takes more than death to separate members of the Family. Thus, the number of deceased entities working with the group increased to four, and the work went on.

One of the group's more interesting missions resulted in the "good side" of a troubled spirit taking up residence inside an oak tree at a certain cemetery. The unique hybrid formed by the spirits of the late Lincoln Marfan and the tree itself has now evolved into an alien life form of sorts, one which reaches out of the past to threaten the Family at its weakest link: the two teenaged children of two of the founding members. Both youngsters begin having strange recurring dreams, and the Family goes into crisis mode one night when the son is unable to awaken. A ghostly exploration of his dream reveals strange sights and elicits disturbing questions, for apparently a strange and subconscious "virus" has somehow taken root inside the boy. This whole frightening episode compels the boy's mother to sue for the custody of her two children, thus putting the Family in a quite different kind of crisis mode.

Amidst the turmoil, though, the work does goes on. Teams split up to take on a number of new assignments. Readers will meet up with the ghost of Hawaii's last queen, Liliuokalani, witness a sobering breakthrough on the once-bloody grounds of Vietnam and hear first-hand of the pope's concerns over the religious implications of the Family's work -- among other things. The final culmination of the events surrounding the aforementioned children must wait until the closing chapters, and as usual Howells provides for a surprising set of circumstances resulting in loss as well as spiritual growth.

It is hard for me to describe these Vanessa novels. The series has weaknesses, but in a strange way those weaknesses are also some of the books' greatest strengths. I think it is safe to say that the number of important characters has now grown unwieldy by this point. The author does provide a descriptive list of the characters at the back of the book, but I found it difficult to remember who each and every minor character was as I was reading. Then there is the interaction of family members. These people love each other a little too much to be natural; the very sight of someone can lead to group hysterics as everyone jumps up, slaps backs and almost dances a jig. I sometimes want to roll my eyes at scenes such as these, yet in a way it is this wealth of caring and good feeling that makes this group of people so special. And the puns -- these characters are shameless in their attempts to be "punny." In a way, it's annoying, yet in another way it's a plus. Howells' writing makes you so familiar with these characters that you would be disappointed if they actually behaved any differently.

I honestly love these Vanessa novels, but they will not satisfy the taste of some readers. I do think it is very important that readers approach this series in a chronological fashion. Much of the story in Vanessa: Mended Harps ties directly to events that took place in the previous novels, and I think it is hard to truly appreciate the work of the Fitzgalen family and to understand the individual characters without having read each of the earlier novels in the series.

- Rambles
written by Daniel Jolley
published 20 November 2004

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