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book review

Claire Mulligan’s historical novel The Dark draws on the lives of the Fox sisters, who played an important role in the creation of Spiritualism. The three sisters were Leah, Margaret and Kate.

Claire Mulligan's latest novel, The Dark, is that rare animal, scarcely seen: a story so compelling it feels destined for bestseller-dom, yet rendered in a style that brings to mind the ever-vivid, perspicacious (and hilarious) Flannery O'Connor. Style meet content; content meet style – Mulligan's novel has it all. A historical novel that dramatizes the Spiritualist movement from infancy to heyday, The Dark brings to life the Fox Sisters – Leah, Maggie and Katie – who, in the 19th century, duped the English-speaking world into believing that they could raise the dead.

Initially a childhood prank designed to frighten their mother, the girls' "superpower" snowballs until even the reader wonders whether there's something to it. Indeed, one of the novel's greatest pleasures is trying to figure out how the sisters orchestrate the elaborate knocks, raps and levitations that occur during their seances, even as they are subjected to various "debunking" experiments and public physical examinations by an amazing cast of ridiculous men.

A quieter pleasure, and one emotionally resonant and artfully drawn, is the lovely unfolding of oldest sister Leah's manipulation of the much younger Maggie and Katie, until all three are as co-dependent and addicted to one another as they are to their new-found fortune. At the height of their power, the sisters are celebrities, drinking champagne for breakfast and holding seances for the first lady; by the novel's end, they are ruined, lonely drunks living in the "grave-damp of poverty."

While this ebb-and-flow of success and sisterly love forms the novel's main arc, smaller mysteries and mini-plots abound: the disappearance (and reappearance) of their father, John Fox; the bizarre, cross-hatched scars on Leah's forearms; the ghost of a peddler who haunts the girls' childhood home; a vengeful jack-of-all-trades named Chauncey Burr, determined to discredit the sisters, with a secret of his own; a love story between Maggie and a peculiar, dubious Arctic explorer named Elisha Kane.

If this all sounds slightly too strange to be fiction, that's because it's true. Mulligan makes plain her extensive research in the author's notes at the end of the book – while events have been dramatized, facts tweaked here and there, the Fox Sisters were a real phenomenon, as is the Spiritualist movement, which continues today. No one, it seems, will ever stop wondering what happens when we die – or trying to make a buck from it.

Big, wonderful, weird picture of the novel aside, Mulligan's style is wry, assured and gorgeously wrought. Her character descriptions are a rare delight: A minor character has a "face like a cellar potato"; a Quaker couple are "angular, poke-edged people who fit together with ease, like a child's wooden puzzle"; a reverend is "overlarge, with a glowering eye and a face like a boiled ham." At times, too, the book is laugh-out-loud funny, as when Leah reduces Arctic exploration to the folly of idiots: "Men like to seek it out and tend, not surprisingly, to get lost forever there." An equal stylistic phenomenon is that the 500-page tome feels as precise as a novella.

But there is no light without the dark, and the novel does have its murkiness, namely its first-person narrator: the mysterious and bizarre Mrs. Mellon, a caretaker charged with shepherding the aged and indigent Maggie Fox to her final resting place.

The conceit of the novel is that Mrs. Mellon has spent 47 days listening to Maggie recount her and her sisters' rise to fame, and is retelling it for the reader via testimony. Each chapter begins with a mini-scene between Mrs. Mellon and the infirm Maggie, the former dosing out medicine and then knitting bedside, the latter mumbling dreamlike and strange, before settling into the larger story at hand.

The book, then, is a first-person testimony written in the past tense, with present-tense recollections making up the bulk of its text, and so it is a retelling of a retelling (or a needless way of muddying the waters of point of view).

Halfway through, Mrs. Mellon still seems static and unnecessarily, and it is only during the latter half of things that we understand that Maggie is the one tending to her, not vice versa, though by then it's a little hard to care. But no matter, for this amounts to a few mere dropped stitches in an otherwise gorgeous tapestry of familial love and deception, set among a rich backdrop of the American Civil War, abolitionism and suffragism.

When reading historical fiction, it's hard not to wonder, "Why this book/this topic now?" just as it's hard not to question its larger role in literature other than as a means of dramatizing some interesting and forgotten part of the past. Here's where the novel's subject matter becomes topical, then – in the parallels, subtly drawn, between the spooky work of mediums and the rituals performed by the novel's various reverends, priests and ministers.

If ever there were a book that subtly damns certain sects of religion as being just as deceptive, foolish and irresistibly appealing as the hocus-pocus of enterprising charlatans, it is this one.

After all, it is easier to be a believer, even (and especially) in this troubling time of reawakened fundamentalism – "ambivalence is such an exhausting state," Maggie Fox tells us, rightly, "like balancing on a fence post in a gale. Better to just jump and land in the muck of one side or the other."

Marjorie Celona's first novel, Y, was nominated for the Scotiabank Giller Prize.