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Book Review: Talking to the Dead by Bonnie Grove

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Talking to the Dead, the debut novel by Bonnie Grove, begins on the day of a funeral. Kate’s husband has died. Her memory has such big holes and she is so devastated and shattered that in the days following she doesn’t eat, shower, change her clothes, and for sure doesn’t enter the bedroom they shared.

That’s because beginning the night after the funeral, Kevin speaks to her. His disembodied voice comes out of nowhere; it’s frightening and wonderful, until one day Kevin’s tone changes and the whole thing becomes just plain terrifying. Kate begins to wonder if she's psychic or just crazy and she knows she needs to get help.

Help presents itself in a variety of guises: a spiritual counselor, a psychiatrist, a miracle-advertising evangelist, a therapy group with a mix of people as colorful, zany and troubled as Kate herself, and a very human pastor whose flock is a ragtag bunch of youth who meet for pickup basketball.

The characters and plot were sparked, at Groves’ own admission on her Fiction Matters blog, by her work in the field of psychology:

"In part, the story came out of my experiences as a counselor, sitting with people who were attempting to articulate their pain and distress. It occurred to me that many of the things these people were doing (the behaviors I saw) were often an attempt to accomplish something very different than what they were doing – in other words, behavior didn’t match intentions. It caused me to truly see why Jesus commanded us not to judge others. We simply don’t know what’s going on under the surface."

The intriguing plot is served well by Grove’s storytelling style, a slow titillation of revelations as Kate gradually remembers more and more. Groves’ writing is just plain pleasurable to read as it flows by turns descriptive, funny, attentive to details, ringing true:

"It was as if my desolation had multiplied the power of gravity. I was stuck.”

“My mind, luminously awake, sewed blindfolds of anger and forged a strong rope of despair.”

“Maggie spoke in a loud and careful manner one would use if addressing the UN. Every word evenly parceled out.”

Besides Kate and the ghostly Kevin, the book is populated with a multitude of other characters: Kate’s sister, her mother, the decisive and colorful Maggie, toupee-wearing psychiatrist Dr. Alexander, high school friend Blair, members of her support group, the gym pastor Jack, and more. All are brought to life — many with comedic features — through Groves’ skillful hands

While on the surface Talking to the Dead is about grieving the death of a spouse, it’s also about betrayal, disappointment, loyalty, friendship, love, the fragility and resilience of the human psyche, and choosing the right foundation for one’s hopes. The story illustrates God’s way of invading even the most hurtful situations with the warmth and sweetness of grace. “That is the story I wanted to tell,” says Grove. “God in the midst of our messy lives."

As a debut novel, this is a stunner. I'd say this summer you, your beach bag, and this chubby book need each other. But don’t forget the sunscreen — for under Groves’ spell, you may well forget to turn!

If you're interested in learning more about the book, you can read the first chapter (PDF link) courtesy of the author's website.

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