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Historical Fiction

Review: The Spirit Engineer by A.J. West

My husband and I had planned to go for a cinema date on New Year’s Eve (plus I had a bit left on an Odeon gift card to use up). We’d originally planned to see The Matrix Resurrections but I’d read such scathing reviews for it I vetoed and we went for Spider-Man: No Way Home in the end.

It was cute, felt a lot like fanfiction. I don’t think I’m dropping any spoilers by saying a host of characters from the previous iterations of the franchise turn up for a Spider-verse reunion in this latest installment. It was fun to see Willem Dafoe’s Green Goblin again.

Even though the villains in the most recent MCU movies seem more sophisticated than in his era, Norman Osborn lost none of his original Jekyll-Hyde creepiness in No Way Home and I think it really added to the movie.

Image credit: parisbeacon.com

Speaking of which…I got distinct not-quite-Jekyll and plenty-of-Hyde vibes while getting acquainted with Professor William Jackson Crawford, the titular character of The Spirit Engineer by A.J. West.

Overview

Two years after the sinking of the Titanic, Professor William Jackson Crawford discovers his wife, Elizabeth, is neither attending private church meetings nor having an affair during her weekly outings, but visiting a spirit medium in the hopes of making contact with her brother, who drowned aboard the ill-fated vessel.

As a man of science, precision and proof, and an engineering lecturer at the esteemed Belfast Municipal Technical Institute, William feels affronted by his wife’s faith in the sèances and sets out to expose them as folly…that is before he himself starts hearing voices from the beyond. With the encouragement of some wealthy associates, William changes course and begins experimenting with the medium, Kathleen Goligher, to prove the phenomena genuine.

Review

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

I thoroughly enjoyed this reading experience. William is only ever concerned for himself – even early on in the book when he appears to show concern for those around him, particularly his family, I look back with the knowledge of his full character and see that any fleeting concerns he showed were only really about how others’ behaviour reflected on him.

In the beginning, it’s easy to dismiss his casual disdain for women and those he deems beneath him as fitting for a man of his day. But these tendencies amplify to dangerous levels quickly.

His behaviour towards those around him becomes increasingly more disturbing as the story progresses, his actions becoming more frightening than anything the spirits appear to do, highlighted excellently by William himself: “We fear the dead when, really, we ought to be far more afraid of the living, don’t you think?”.

I think this is a great example to highlight modern-day discourse around certain language usage and the policing of it. There are many a debate in which it is difficult, sometimes impossible, to find common ground and significant dangers in stifling free speech. And yet William’s dangerous descent into tunnel vision shows it can take just the lightest of nudges for someone to perceive they enjoy the comfort of widespread support.

Just a whisper or two of encouragement for dangerous collateral impacts to result from the core beliefs behind seemingly harmless words.

Because it was never really about William proving spirits were real – it was about him cementing his superiority (Although, if we were to have an honest, exploratory conversation with William, I think he would like us to believe that his actions were ultimately attempts at making his mother proud, or, for his less desirable qualities, for the lack of his mother’s presence).

It should also give us some pause about blindly accepting whatever doctrines are public flavor-of-the-month, seemingly out of nowhere, and voting in defacto leaders of such movements where their true intentions are easy to conceal behind the spectacle of the exciting new movement (interestingly enough, it is a year to the day since the Capitol siege at the time I’m drafting this. But true intentions deserve thorough examination at all corners of the political spectrum).

I really enjoyed William’s voice, particularly at the beginning when his focusses were somewhat lighter – I laughed out loud at many of his scornful observations about his peers! And I enjoyed how darkly matter-of-fact he narrated towards the end.

I really loved the characters of Elizabeth, Margaret and Helen Crawford, Lady Adelia Carter and the Goligher women: Kathleen, Rebecca and their mother. Each of them was strong and calculating in their own right and we didn’t get to see that in them until late on in the book because we are subject to William’s contemptuous narration.

Each of these women and girls is vulnerable to William’s whims throughout the story and we discover towards the end that that vulnerability was not something they simply accepted as inevitable. They actively planned their lives around that knowledge, to achieve ongoing survival and the hope of more.

I also really appreciated the attention to detail of the time period. A.J. West carries out incredibly intricate research and has a whole trove of records on his investigations on his website about what is actually a true story: William Crawford really did research the science of spirits via spirit medium Kathleen Goligher!

Image Credit: A.J West

The Spirit Engineer is set in 1914 and evidence of the impending WWI was woven naturally throughout the story without it becoming the main focus. I don’t think I’ve seen that done before in a story set between 1914-1918.

It was poignant to read Noah suddenly working all hours at the shipyard due to the war demand, and that a significant number of students were instantly absent from the Institute, having signed up to join the army.

Made more poignant, I think, by William narrating those realities as inconsequential in the grand scheme of his life. Indeed, the only real interest he has in the war is finding his way up the ladder of the social elite by discussing his developing ideas for the use of dirigibles in warfare.

William starts holding (and charging for, alongside his rich peers) public audiences as his investigations progress, which feels so typical of him. He would have us think it’s about teaching, but he courts fame and accolades and, by this point, he’s clearly willing to achieve them by any means.

I was put in mind of the undercurrent of tension and dread in The Prestige (set around 20 years before the events of The Spirit Engineer) when William took to the stage. I should have liked to have seen what happened at his next audience following the unexpected incident at the first.

Image credit: fansided.com

One of my favourite scenes is when William is teaching his class at the Institute. It’s so deliciously revealing!

He starts the lesson with this tantalising question: “Last week…We calculated the area of a regular solid. How then might we calculate the area of an irregular figure without a planimeter?”, following up with, “What if a circle is flawed?”

What if, indeed! Such clever writing.

Favourite Quotes

“What messes we men make.”

‘Such is the comforting mythology of the deceased’.

‘As things were, any one of them – even the boys – could have reduced me to tears with a single thump. I knew it. They knew it. Such is the currency of manhood.’ (I discussed this quote with A.J. West on Twitter, how much I felt it, despite not having the experience. He told me he wrote this line after witnessing a fight on a bus.)

‘I closed my eyes, breathing in the familiar scent of plastrer, oil and varnish. My polished shoes sang like nails on glass.’

“Come now, Elizabeth, what is going on, you’ve been guilty as priests from the moment I arrived home.”

‘I must not allow myself to show my feelings. I must not comfort the boy, just as there was nobody who could comfort me.”

‘Is it cowardly to hide from the truth or better to live alongside it; to be haunted by it for the rest of one’s life, without pursuing it or tempting it into the light?’

‘There are great mysteries in this world of ours, but a mystery is only a fact in disguise.’

‘He jabbed the newspaper in his lap, disturbing the brittle atmosphere in the common room.’

“All these arguments between kings and kaisers would be gone in a wisp if we just listened to the wisdom of our dead…”

‘My head felt tight and packed with chalk dust…’

‘There was something about the room, something about the hushed nature, the stillness, which managed to drug the senses, inflaming them to a point of almost unbearable sensitivity.’

‘Such fancies are so often a child’s way of handling grief. If ghosts are real, death is not.’

‘There is too much in people for them to end so suddenly.’

“You’re nothing but another arrogant man, telling the world what is right and what is wrong, what is true, what is shame. Creating problem after problem, then busying yourself with solutions.” (This was a line from Adelia to William. I think she said this with *her whole chest*, to William, to her late husband and to all the men she had to be frequently chummy with!)

‘Trembling, I reached out like a blind man, feeling for something more or something less than the shadows.’

“Honestly, you men; overestimating your minds, completely disregarding your souls. I should not be surprised if Paradise were completely female.”

“All men are short of money, especially the rich ones. That, my friend, is capitalism.”

“It seems we will never have a moment’s peace.”

“People only ever doubt certainties, otherwise, where’s the sport?”

‘Certain men are liable to be duped, and there is no creature so gullible as the certain man.’

‘Anger, jealousy, hatred, ambition, regret, none of them matter in the end.’

The Spirit Engineer is a thrilling read for fans of:

  • historical fiction with rich settings
  • unreliable narrators
  • unguessable endings
  • complex characters and relationships

Here are some non-affiliated links to buy:

You can also reach out to author A.J. West on Twitter (he is REALLY lovely!).

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