The Possessions is a debut novel and is set in a parallel world where the bereaved can contact their deceased loved ones using humans as conduits who are referred to as ‘bodies’. Edie is one such body, who works for the Elysian Society, one of the high-end places which offers this service. This is one of those books that is hard to slot into a particular genre. Yes, it is set in a dystopian world but I won’t label it a fantasy novel. Suffice to say, it is a literary thriller with elements of fantasy and relationship drama.

The job of a ‘body’ is to act as a portal to channel dead people, with the help of a little pill called lotus and a prized possession of the departed. Such work entails high risk, as Edie soon discovers. It is clear very early on that Edie is a reticent character with a checkered past. She tries to escape it by investing all her energy in her work almost as if she is intent on shedding all part of her own identity, camouflaging it with bits and pieces of various dead people whom she channels. She is coolly professional with her colleagues and clients and has no personal life to speak of.

Things take a turn once Edie acquires a charming new client, Patrick, who wants to get in touch with Sylvia, his wife who drowned in a lake on a getaway under mysterious circumstances. Edie, who is otherwise assiduous when it comes to her job, finds herself breaking long-standing rules of disengagement. She is drawn to Patrick and Sylvia’s glamorous marriage, her enigmatic persona and abrupt death. As she begins to channel her frequently, she gradually finds Sylvia invading her mind, impulses and emotions. It is eerie to see how Sylvia steadily starts taking over Edie’s personality, with the latter providing the perfect corporeal facade to the dead woman’s dangerous motives.

Soon Edie gets embroiled in Sylvia’s secrets even as her passion for Patrick grows. Her carefully constructed life begins to unravel and she starts getting into trouble with the Society’s administration after taking undue risks to get insight into Sylvia’s last days. Along the way, she uncovers startling facts about the Elysian Society. Everything is not as black and white as she has been led to believe – there have been horrific incidents in the past with bodies who have been trapped in limbo between death and life.

I was surprised to find out that The Possessions was a debut, since the novel reads like something written by a seasoned writer. The story has ingenuous subplots; societies that exploits people who can channel the dead and one body occupying two or more souls. Such a premise requires nuanced execution and refined narrative skills because otherwise the story has the potential to come across as unbelievable or gimmicky. Fortunately for us, Murphy’s writing is sharp and well-crafted which really elevates the story, compelling the reader to keep turning pages. The exposition is superbly done with deft world-building which makes this futuristic story relatable.

The Possessions contemplates poignant questions about the power that our deceased loved ones can have on our life. Also, as Edie soon realizes, some people easily misuse this channel for their nefarious purposes. The book perceptively examines how grief is different for every individual and the myriad ways that people cope with it. As Edie observes:

“I’ve seen people waste so little time that they’ve arrived at Room 12 with eyelids still swollen from the funeral. For some clients, working with me is like returning to a conversation after a brief interruption, scarcely noting that anything has changed…But I’ve also known people to wait for decades, letting everyone believe that they’d moved on. Completing the dutiful stages of mourning, crafting new lives in the space left behind. And then waking up with the simple, unignorable urge to talk to their wives, best friends, daughters.”

Edie’s character is a blank canvas and provides a perfect vantage point from which to observe the world around her but it also makes her a bland protagonist. Specifically, in the later parts of the book, I found Edie’s character increasingly insipid and unlikeable. Another issue I had was how some minor storylines were handled. Without giving away any spoilers, I felt that Murphy alluded to some very interesting story arcs that she didn’t properly tap into. This led to the story deviating considerably from the main plot which I found distracting. Nevertheless, these minor flaws did not take away much from the novel which thrives on its writing for the most part.

The Possessions is a haunting and brilliantly written thriller which raises questions about the boundaries between grief and obsession. People who enjoy offbeat fiction with a touch of supernatural will enjoy this book.

★★★★

The Possessions is published in hardback by Scribe UK on 9 March 2017