REVIEW: Hazardous Spirits by Anbara Salam

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In 1920s Edinburgh, Scotland, Evelyn Hazard is a young, middle-class housewife living the life she’s always expected—until her husband, Robert, upends everything with a startling announcement: he can communicate with the dead.

The couple is pulled into the spiritualist movement—a religious society of mediums and psychics that emerged following the mass deaths of the Spanish flu and First World War—and Evelyn’s carefully composed world begins to unravel. And when long-held secrets from her past threaten to come to the surface, presenting her with the prospect of losing all she holds dear, Evelyn finds herself unable to avoid the question: is the man she loves a fraud, a madman, or—most frighteningly—is he telling the truth?

Cloaked in the moody, beguiling backdrop of twentieth-century Scotland, Anbara Salam’s Hazardous Spirits brings a sparkling sense of period detail and dry humor to the life of a young woman whose world is unsettled by mediums and spirits, revealing the devastating secrets that ghosts from the past can tell when given the voice to do so.

Dear Ms. Salam,

There is so much that I enjoyed about “Hazardous Spirits.” The characters are interesting, the setting and period details are wonderfully done. It’s got subtle humor. There’s a great slowly growing gothicky goodness to it. Watching Evie and Robert’s marriage strain and risk cracking due to the plot raises the tension. But then came the end. I’m not quite sure what to do with the end.

Evie is a middle class married woman in 1920s Edinburgh. Her family used to be wealthy but bad financial decisions on her father’s part lost the family estate and their way of life. Then came the war, the flu, the death of a daughter, and oh, yes that event of Evie’s that no one knows about. Now she’s married to Robert, an orphan, who is an accountant and who, up until when the book starts, was a bit staid. He’s just told Evie that he can talk to spirits and Evie – she’s stunned at the revelation. A family doctor who is called away from a formal dinner to examine Robert informs Evie that her husband is either sick, faking, or telling the truth. It will take Evie the entire book to decide which. But even with what she’s learned, does she really know?

I usually don’t care for books that drop me into dark and swirling plot waters that I don’t have a clue as to how deep they are and if “here be monsters” in them. For this story, I was willing to go along for the ride to find out more. The setting is nicely laid out with enough period detail to set me in this time and place. There’s enough but not a pile on just to show how much research was done. Well done. But there’s also the feel of the time from the prewar years through to now when the country is grappling with the loss of a generation of young men and the grief that goes along with that. As one former soldier tells Evie, “It’s a land of ghosts, now. For the rest of us.”

At first Evie is embarrassed by Robert’s claims. What will the neighbors think? What will her family think? Her father might have torpedoed the family finances but they still have some social standing and he’s not thrilled with the thought of a son-in-law who talks to spirits. No, that just won’t do as the family has also had (gasp) a divorce and mother couldn’t stand any more scandal. Until Robert comes to his senses, they won’t be associating with Evie and her husband. Evie’s younger sister Kitty stings Evie with what Evie sees as (milder) disapproval. Well, at least Evie won’t have to feign interest in her niece now as Evie is not maternal at all.

As Robert delves into the world of spiritualism, Evie is at first worried about what people will think – her apple hasn’t fallen quite as far from the family tree as she might wish. Then as she sees him in action, she begins to wonder if Robert really can contact the dead. Robert is working with a child medium genius who knows things that Evie can’t fathom how Clarence would know in any other way. When Robert also manifests similar talents, Evie is on the edge of being convinced and also worried about her past coming to light from a spirit who knows what happened.

The story is more women’s fiction and self discovery. Evie’s is the only POV shown and there were times I felt for her and times I felt like shaking her. She can be self centered, glass-(more-than)-half-empty, ready to believe the worst, irritating, and delighted to latch onto the social world of Bright Young Things who are following the fad for spiritual mediums. She acutely feels the loss of the status her family once had and suffers agonies of embarrassment when she thinks Robert is going to do or say the wrong thing. Watching the idle rich be idle and silly also got up my nose a time or two.

I wasn’t sure what the final verdict would be on Robert’s “gift.” Robert seems guileless and genuine but then, wouldn’t fake spiritualists act that way? His child mentor gives Evie creepy vibes at times but he’s a child and Evie isn’t thrilled with those. I also got tired with the references to how Evie’s gastrointestinal system (53 references to her stomach and 4 to her bowels, yes I counted) behaves when she’s stressed and the pace of the middle section dragged a bit. Then came the end which left me with that feeling you get when you’re going downstairs and accidentally miss a step. Is there a sequel planned? Or are we to guess what will happen after the last sentence is spoken? I’m honestly not sure. B/C+

~Jayne

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Jayne

Another long time reader who read romance novels in her teens, then took a long break before started back again about 25 years ago. She enjoys historical romance/fiction best, likes contemporaries, action- adventure and mysteries, will read suspense if there’s no TSTL characters and is currently reading more fantasy and SciFi.

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