Review: Luisa Perkins’ _Dispirited_ is a Supernatural Delight

5.9.12 | | 25 comments

Zarahemla Books hits the sweet spot again with its latest book offering, Luisa Perkins’ Dispirited. The supernatural thriller/YA dark fantasy is a worthy addition to Zarahemla’s quality library of Mormon literature, and continues to showcase the diversity Zarahemla displays on its shelf. Zarahemla is as much of a home for genre fiction, as it is high brow literary novels, as it is for personal essays, as it is for short stories, as it is now for Mormon drama (full disclosure: Zarahemla Books will be publishing a book of two of my plays in the next few weeks, as well as an anthology of Mormon Drama which I helped pull together later this Summer… but I was a big fan of ZB’s approach long before those projects). Dispirited continues Zarahemla’s big tent tradition with its blend of dark, magical realism and young adult sensibility (with a dash of the bizarre just to throw you off kilter).

Dispirited jumps right into the conflict in its first chapter when a young boy named Blake is grieving for his dead mother and so stumbles upon the ability to separate his spirit from his body (astral projection). Thus he travels to the astral plane in search for his mother. However, Blake is in for a rude awakening (or unawakening) when he tries to get back into his body, as he discovers that it has been possessed by a powerful evil spirit who has no intention of giving the poor child his body back. In the next chapter we are introduced to Cathy, years after the inciting incident. Cathy is the step sister of “Blake,” and becomes our main protagonist. The real Blake, now an exiled spirit out of his body, enlists Cathy in the battle over the possession and right to his body.  And then we’re off to the races, plot wise.

I found the initial premise fascinating, partly because I felt it was plausible. I have known people (including a personal friend of mine, as well as a Wiccan who I baptized on my mission) who had claimed to have accomplished this feat of “astral planing,” where they could separate themselves from their bodies, travel in a different plane of existence, and then return to their body (although my friend from my mission claimed that she had difficulty getting back into her body, so she never attempted the experience again). As a believer in this kind of supernatural possibility, having had a few difficult to explain supernatural scenarios in my own life, Perkins had me at the get go with this initial conflict. The central premise seemed real and organic, especially from a Mormon worldview. Sometimes magical realism, from the perspective of a Mormon, simply becomes realism.

Which leads me to an interesting aspect to this novel. There is no reason this book had to be published by Zarahemla Books rather than a national publisher. Despite it fitting well into Mormon theology and cosmology, the novel has no identifiable Mormon characters (apart from some subtle possibilities due to Cathy’s family going to Church at one point and saying a blessing over their meal, but that could identify them as members of any general Christian religion, really). The novel says nothing about Mormonism beyond the subtext of the world it inhabits. In this way, it reminded me a great deal of what Orson Scott Card, or maybe even Stephen King, might write for the national market. More than once I thought of Card’s Lost Boys as a possible comparison

But back to the dark “magical realism” the novel employs. As the story progresses, the supernatural elements become more wild and bizarre, even far fetched. I had no real problems with this, as Perkins’ skill in creating these elements still created a great deal of interest in these parts of the novel. A VERY supernatural house (inspired by the photo on the cover), a sprite-like child spirit guide, magical talismans, bizarre landscapes– these all led the novel away from its initial magical realism into outright fantasy. Again, this was still good, for Perkins still made these dimensions of the novel compelling. But some of the edge was taken off in consequence. Where I felt some legitimate suspense and tension at the novel’s outset due to the plausibility (at least in my mind) of the conflict introduced, a lot of that subsided as Perkins led me into a wild (alebit fascinating) world that became less connected to the one at the beginning of the novel that I felt like was just on the borders  of my own experiences.

Apart from that, however, I found very little to nitpick about the novel. Dispiriteds transparent prose was engaging, its characters very well developed (especially a very strong and believable female protagonist in Cathy), and its plot full of twists and turns that kept you guessing. There was more than one point where I felt I had the novel figured out, only to have Perkins throw me a curveball and get me wondering all over again. The novel’s antagonist is blatantly malevolent and outright sinister (he IS an evil spirit, after all), but even with that he still seemed like a nuanced, complex character with very clear motivations. The novel had a genuinely sweet romance as a subplot, with a unique and interesting love interest for Cathy.

Dispirited was one of the best reads I’ve had all year. It upholds Zarahemla’s high standard, while being a solid piece of genre fiction in its own right, comparable to the higher end works you’d find in the national market. It’s a legitimate page turner that hooked me in the first chapter and never let go.

25 comments: “Review: Luisa Perkins’ _Dispirited_ is a Supernatural Delight

  1. Th.

    .

    [reminder to self to return and read this after i read my copy of luisa’s book]

  2. Brillig

    I LOVED this book! Like you, I found it engaging and thrilling. The characters stuck with me long after I finished reading the final page. Great review of a fantastic book!

  3. Andrew H.

    Ooh, astral projection. BJ (Brent) Rowley has a series of YA adventure novels about that, the Light Traveler series. The first two were published by Covenant in the late 90s, and if I remember correctly (I think there was some AML-list discussion about it) Deseret Book decided that they would not carry them in the stores, after they had for a while, because of the astral projection. Rowley self-republished the first two, and did another,through his Golden Wings imprint. BJ talks about astral projection/out of body experiences here:
    http://www.bjrowley.com/QA_20.html

  4. Jettboy

    Ok, this is the first review here where I really want to read this book. I am a huge OSC magical realism fan and old style (before getting drunk with his own literary importance) Stephen King.

  5. Kimberly

    I find myself wanting to applaud after reading this review – so spot on! I wish I were able to put my own admiration of this tale into words as coherently as you have. I’ll say this though, I have an annoyingly good memory and rarely read books more than once. But I’m about to read Dispirited for the fourth time!

  6. Lisa Torcasso Downing

    [Wm: this comment got caught by the spam filter because of the use of the pr0n word. I have now released it.]

    Confession: I wasn’t impressed with Dispirited. I’m not supposed to say such things, but. There. I did. Oh it was exceedingly imaginative. And the language is very nice, but in the end, everything that happened to the protagonist (so the action/plot of the whole story) had no bearing on the resolution. She never took control and helped solve what was at stake. She was more ball in a pin ball game than a hero.

    I can understand why others like it, especially the SFF crowd. Hobbit-likers. But if it that scene where Bilbo is in–what was it? A cave? A tunnel? (its been years since I read it)–being chased and he can’t escape either way, but then he miraculously finds a magic ring that makes invisible and solves his problem… If that scene annoyed you, then Dispirited will annoy you. I love supernatural thrillers, but this doesn’t read like one IMO. I never felt suspense or even a legitimate creepy feeling bc I knew I didn’t have to worry about the protagonist. The writer would make something appear to make the bad thing not happen.

    Spoiler: And as to why it wasn’t published nationally, lets look at the way the protagonist, Cathy discovers that the Fake Blake is a problem. She has a vision, essentially, and sees him snorting an unnamed powder and looking at pornography. Cathy immediately panics, claiming that her family is in grave danger. What? If Perkins sent this story to NY or other such places, I’m pretty sure no one read past this vision. Its a leap. Chances are, those people (agents/publishers) have either put a powder up their nose or know someone who has and would be offended that this writer would claim them a grave danger, a threat to the lives of others. This was an example of Mormon isolationism at its core.

    I wanted to love this book. I can’t tell you how much I wanted to love this novel. Maybe I had too high an expectation after reading the reviews. And I do love that Z published something like this. But I don’t think it deserves the level of accolades its receiving. For its imagination, sure, I’d give it an A, but for its execution, its a C at best.

    Oh, writer guilt! Its trying to get me to not hit “submit.” To keep my opinion to myself. Look, like I said, Perkins is obviously a very, very talented writer. I just think she missed taking this story to the plane it deserved. That’s disappointing.

    Is it worth reading? You bet. You can pick up some fun Mormon underpinnings. And OBVIOUSLY other people enjoy it. Heavy sigh.

  7. Sarah Dunster

    I worked at a residential treatment center with Rowley’s wife and in the process, read his whole series. Interesting and fun stuff :)

  8. Mahonri Stewart Post author

    Lisa,

    To be fair, you have some good points, things that occurred to me as well (pornography? In my opinion, an evil demon would be into more hard core scenarios than that at that point). And I certainly didn’t think it was legitimately “scary,” especially once it went into the more dark fantasy realm, rather than supernatural thriller (which I mention in the review).

    However, I didn’t get the same sense of Deus ex machina that you did and I felt that its virtues far outweighed any flaws. I was thoroughly invested in the novel the entire journey. And you didn’t like The Hobbit (who doesn’t like The Hobbit? Especially the classic scene in the cave!), so you and I must part ways regarding our tastes there. ;)

  9. Lisa Torcasso Downing

    That’s right. I didn’t like the Hobbit. So I’m probably crazy and my views on things literary should probably be flushed. :) Eh, Tolkien writes a good sentence, I’ll give him that. Seriously, though, my primary problem with this text lies with the protagonist’s non-import. She simply didn’t solve the problem, didn’t sacrifice, and most of what happened to her had little to no impact on the resolution. Do I think it merited Z’s publication? Yeah, I’d have recommended publishing it.

    Really, maybe, at the heart of this is another issue. I’m wondering why I haven’t read a review of this book that points out any flaw. I have a worry that the MoLit community of critics(and I don’t want to be a part of that, but keep finding myself on its fringe) is overly kind. I hate saying that bc I’ll not be thrilled by anyone who is “nasty” about what I get published :) But don’t we have an obligation to push through critique for more and better? Don’t the critics have an important role to play? Look, I love MoLit and I think we’ve got fantastic writers. I think Perkins has the potential to be a break-out writer. She’s very imaginative and her writing, her descriptions, are fantastic. But IDK. I think we need better criticism in our arena.

  10. Mahonri Stewart Post author

    I’ll address your particular concerns with the text later, Lisa, because I personally do think you’re wrong about some of them. But let me address some of your other statements first:

    You said, “I have a worry that the MoLit community of critics(and I don’t want to be a part of that, but keep finding myself on its fringe) is overly kind.”

    I did not write this review in glowing terms because I was trying to be “overly kind.” I wrote this review the way I did because I really did enjoy it that much. If I had other issues with the text, I would have said so. But Perkins held my attention and enjoyment for the journey, and I gave the novel the review I felt it deserved. When I really enjoy something, I’m not going to be shy about it, nor will I conjure a more harsh critique just to sound more intellectual and above it all (not that I think that’s what you’re doing… you’re giving your legitimate reaction to the novel, just as I’m giving mine). My praise is sincere and my enjoyment of my experience with the novel was genuinely tasty.

    You said, “I’m wondering why I haven’t read a review of this book that points out any flaw.”

    I addressed in the review what I thought went a little south in the story… Perkins bringing the story too far in the fantasy realm, rather keeping it more firm in its initial dark, supernatural realism… I really do feel that deflated a good deal of the tension and suspense for me. However, also as I said in the review, that wasn’t a deal breaker for me. I still thoroughly enjoyed those parts, it was just a different kind of enjoyment. It became less thriller and more fantasy, that’s all.

    You said, “But don’t we have an obligation to push through critique for more and better? Don’t the critics have an important role to play? Look, I love MoLit and I think we’ve got fantastic writers. I think Perkins has the potential to be a break-out writer. She’s very imaginative and her writing, her descriptions, are fantastic. But IDK. I think we need better criticism in our arena.”

    What I find disturbing with these comments is that because you didn’t like the novel so much, you immediately assume that people who did enjoy it have something wrong with their critical thinking skills. That assumption is a little insulting.

    You yourself gave the novel some begrudging respect. Isn’t it possible that it’s just hitting other people’s sweet spots, where it didn’t hit yours? Art is subjective, and there will be varying reactions to any piece. Don’t assume just because yours is the negative one, that it is the only legitimate one.

    Having been on the receiving end of some negative reviews (some possibly deserved, others where I felt the critic was unfairly imposing his own views and expectations on the text, rather than trying to meet the text on its own terms and goals), I can assure you we still have plenty of negative reviews floating around out there in the Mo Lit community, so critical thinking is still alive and well, and many a writer has been improved because of that process.

    But, personally, if I have a negative reaction to a work, I usually don’t care enough about it to waste my time writing about it, so the reviews I send out are usually about work I care about, so they tend to be positive. That is not always the case– I’ve still gone on my own tirades against a piece, if my dislike of it is particularly passionate– but I find the most disdainful review I usually give a piece is my uncaring silence.

    I think criticism is an important part of any literary tradition, but I see my personal role in Mormon Lit as more of a contributing writer rather than a critic– most of my critical analysis tends to go into my actual plays and screenplays. I spend most of my time working on those, rather than writing reviews of work I don’t care about.

  11. Jonathan Langford

    Lisa points out a legitimate concern within the Mormon lit community. I also think it’s a set of questions whose answers aren’t all obvious.

    Last Sunday in reaction to Emmeline Wells’s comments posted here by Kent Larsen, I found myself thinking about the variety of different aims and audiences for reviews. Are they for the writer? The reader? The community? All three are legitimate audiences for reviews, and all three have different — sometimes conflicting — needs.

    Is it ever legitimate to criticize something, not for how well it’s written, but for what it is — while acknowledging that others may like that sort of thing? Yes, I think so. Certainly some of my Whitney reviews fit into that category. But it’s a practice fraught with perils, and I often feel conflicted when I do it.

    (And Lisa, I *could* send you the chapter of my master’s thesis where I talk about Bilbo’s decision-making and personal growth — which has less to do with escaping from the orcs and more to do with learning to choose what is right even when people you care about will disapprove — but probably the more consistent position is for me to concede that yes, some people just don’t like certain stories. I’m sure you’d be appalled at some of the literary classics that leave me cold…)

  12. Lisa Torcasso Downing

    That’s fair, Mahonri. Point taken. Well, except let me say that I surely didn’t mean to insult anyone’s intelligence, so holy cow, I apologize for that. That was me being lazy in forming what I wanted to say. And you are correct. You did give a caveat. I blew that.

    I really didn’t intend those last remarks to be specific to you, or this review, or even to this book. I need to be more careful in how I word things. I acknowledge that this book wasn’t for me. Or at least that reviews I’d read led me to think it would be something that it isn’t. And I admit I do tend to read differently than those who read for entertainment, which is the purpose of this book, so in a very real way, I didn’t read it “right”.

    I’m always looking for the “how its built” bc I learn from doing so. That shouldn’t imply I think my reading is better than someone else’s. I just read differently. I focus on different things. I listen to music differently than a composer does, I’m sure. Doesn’t make the composer smarter than me. He just has an added dimension to his outlook, one that doesn’t really matter to my consumption of the music.

    But I still think the criticism of criticism in general terms about MoLit is valid, even if it isn’t universal. I do see that I made it sound like a blanket criticism of criticism when there is some great criticism out there. (that’s an annoying sentence) I’m not talking about the way lit fic people complain about mainstream Mo lit, or vice versa. I guess I’m just not on board with the idea that the “most disdainful review” is “uncaring silence.” How does that help?

    You spoke anecdotally about criticism you received. I’ve read people’s opinions about my own work that has made me cringe, so I get that. But I try really hard not to then assume that the person simply didn’t “get” me. Now, sometimes they really don’t. For instance,a Dialogue reader sent in a letter to the editor suggesting one of my stories is pornographic. Yeah, I pretty much figure that person didn’t “get” it. Erotic is not erotica, and the story I mention (Straight Home) certainly wasn’t written to titillate but to cause reflection. This is probably something like what you’ve experienced. Its the wrong audience throwing the baby out with the bathwater, because they didn’t notice the baby. We can brush that criticism aside. These types of people were not our audience in the first place.

    But I do think (as you do as well) writers can legitimately learn from feedback from readers, from critics, and that we shouldn’t just brush it off or assume a reader just didn’t get it (again, I’m not saying you ignore legitimate criticism. I’m speaking in general terms here). I am much too arrogant for my own spiritual health and I have learned to seek the best critical people I know to be as rough as humanly possible with my fiction. I try to endure this kind of criticism before I send it out and I consider it a waste of time if someone doesn’t send me back a raw assessment. Nothing is flawless. I hate it when I get criticism that I (eventually) understand is true, but is something I really can’t fix because it means an entire recasting of a story. I’m thinking specifically of a piece that hasn’t been published but I hope will be. (No title will be provided;)Two people–namely Wm Morris and Angela Hallstrom–pointed out things in a critical way that, upon reflection, I saw were spot on. They were not the same things, either. I did what I could, but like I said, I really couldn’t make those changes without starting all over again. Its an imperfect story. All are really. Yet, what I learned from those comments will go forward with me. If Wm or Angela had kept silent about those flaws, I wouldn’t have been able to learn and improve, so I’m grateful. Its the writer side of me that wants more specific criticism.

    I’m not talking about negativity. I appreciate that you spoke of a “negative reaction” rather than negative criticism. I don’t care about negative reactions (those who just don’t like “that kind of art”). But if there is foundational reason why something I write doesn’t hit its mark, I want to know what you think it is so I can consider it and improve. (Egad. I just gave you all permission to tear me a new one with anything of mine you read.)

    Going back specifically to Dispirited, I do think that Perkins intended the story to be suspenseful. I didn’t feel that and here I say a bit of why I think that is. She can take it or leave it. On an intellectual level, I don’t think I’m being negative. But on an emotional level, it makes me a little ill to say any thing unflattering about something that’s already been published. Maybe, then, this is me reacting to my own personal demons. Oh well.

    Well, this is much too long so I’ll hush. Last thing, again, is an apology for coming off arrogantly. I try to be careful w. the fiction I write, but I’m pretty sloppy otherwise. Its embarrassing.

  13. Wm

    I think all reviews and comments should come with a default paragraph of text that appears in people’s minds that says:

    This is one person’s opinion. In order to not lard it up with too many qualifiers, it will be expressed straightforwardly, but the underlying assumption is that it’s to be taken as a subjective response to a work of art with all that that implies.

  14. Lisa Torcasso Downing

    @ Jonathan. Oh no, I wouldn’t be appalled at the lit classics that appall you. I have my own long list. I think the writing profession is just like any other. Time improves it. I may have grown up reading the classics, but I just can’t do it anymore. Give me my contemporary lit!

    An no, don’t send me that chapter. I’ve got no qualms with Bilbo’s decision making ability. I just never could wrap my head around how, in that one scene, Tolkien freed his character of a very suspenseful problem in a way that, as I see it, hadn’t been set up. Its just a pet peeve. I want rules. I want the gun on the mantle to be there in the first act and not suddenly appear under the couch cushions when the character needs it.

    And yes, I feel a strong awareness of the different needs to be met by reviews. I want Z to sell books; its good for all of us. I want readers to understand if a book is for them. I want the theoretical perspective of the academic to find its audience. And I want the writerly perspective of the professional. Come on people, is that too much to ask? ;)

  15. Mahonri Stewart Post author

    Lisa,

    When I said, “but I find the most disdainful review I usually give a piece is my uncaring silence,” I think I should have phrased that a lot better. What I meant by that is that personally I’m usually just too busy (or lazy) to write about it if I didn’t care for it or didn’t have some sort of personal investment in the work on some level. Obviously, that would change if I were a professional critic or was assigned to critique a work. Again, there are exception regarding that for me (for example, I may feel compelled to write about a Mormon play even if I disliked it, since that’s my genre). In this regard, I’m talking about my personal habits.

    Obviously, we need quality criticism, or else where would we progress? So your points are well taken there. But if there is a pattern of my reviews often sound cheery or positive about a work, that’s usually because I liked it enough to write about it in the first place.

    However, in a writing group, or one of my MFA classes, or a staged reading, or when I’m teaching, obviously as much constructive feedback as I can give to help the writer is important to give the writer another set of eyes and an honest reaction.

  16. Mahonri Stewart Post author

    And I DO agree that the novel would have been better with some more legitimate suspense… I was trying to agree with that point in my round about way, even though I enjoyed the approach the book took as well. But it really is trying to bill itself as a supernatural thriller, and on that level it does fall short.

  17. Mark Penny

    Brava. Bravo. I’ve really enjoyed reading this thread. A lot of valid points have been raised, if not quite resolved.

    I had an experience on Wilderness Interface Zone that was a good example of the trickiness inherent to writing and responding in a community. One of Sarah Dunster’s entries in the Spring Runoff struck me as not quite living up to what I took as a promise. I’ll reduce my pixel footprint by referring you to my poetry website, which you can find by clicking my name at the top of this comment. There you will find what I call a “chronicle of my experience” reading and thinking about the work in question. The point I want to make here is that, like Lisa, I felt (and feel) that a little more rigour in our discussion of Mormon literature (whether outright or peripheral) would go a long way to improving it in a number of aspects, both literary and, shall we say, ethical. So I wrote my “chronicle” and linked to it.

    My comment was, shall we say, suspended. For two reasons. First, the site was in the middle of a contest–and in-depth analysis (especially, I assume, by a contest participant) could be construed as an attempt to influence the outcome. That had never occurred to me, because I was far more concerned about understanding Sarah’s piece than I was about the contest, but the point was well taken. Second, the site is intended as a sort of campfire where delving criticism doesn’t fit the “conversazione”. Another point well taken.

    The point I hope anyone reading this will take well is that, like one’s views on Evolution, criticism that “break[s] a thing to find out what it is” is needed (despite Gandalf’s opinion to the contrary), but doesn’t belong at every gathering of the Saints–or even at every gathering of literary Saints. Every venue and every occasion has its bounds in that regard. The trick is to know and respect them–and make sure that some venue and some occasion somewhere has the room for a thorough examination of a piece and our reactions to it.

  18. Mark Penny

    Hmmm. A bit glib–and the kind of thinking and writing you can get away with when Zion is in the world.

    I used to feel snide about Covey, too. Then I read the dude. Didn’t exactly change my life, but helped make me a better, more effective person.

    Anyway, thanks for an amusing read. Sounds like the theatre department is a bit cheerier than it felt when I briefly considered majoring in playwriting back in 1982. Of course, my impression then was based on a very quick discussion with Professor Golightly and one rather brooding graduate student.

  19. Emily M.

    I loved Dispirited, and I consider myself a picky reader(although I also loved The Hobbit). Writing a thoughtful review of it would take more brain cells and time than I have access to right now, but it’s one of my favorite Mormon Lit books I’ve ever read. At some point I am planning to at least mention it and reference this review and Shelah’s, though. It’s true that Cathy did not solve her problems herself; however, I was so intrigued by the Mormonness of the solution that I never noticed that at all until Lisa pointed it out.

    And this thread is interesting. I never review books for Segullah that I wouldn’t give at least a B+ to. I have a lot of reasons for that, and probably the main one is that I hardly ever review books since it’s way more effort than a regular post, so if I’m going to review something, I’d like to put my energy into saying good (honest, but good) things about it.

    For honest reviews, I look to Shelah and Susan (Bloggin Bout Books). Both of them reviewed Whitney finalists this year and were candid.

    I also believe, though, that the most effective way to improve the quality of Mormon literature will be the Whitneys. As the field of Mormon writers expands, the quality will improve. It has happened already.

  20. Jonathan Langford

    Off-topic — but…

    Gandalf’s comeback about breaking a thing to find out what it is is indeed good — but I like better his pithy earlier response to Saruman’s longwindedness:

    “‘And here you will stay, Gandalf the Grey, and rest from journeys. For I am Saruman the Wise, Saruman Ring-maker, Saruman of Many Colours!'”…

    “‘I liked white better,’ I said.”

  21. Mark Penny

    My ambition is to write books that people mention positively in the same breath as The Lord of the Rings—-and long after I’m gone, to boot.

  22. Adam G.

    has a vision, essentially, and sees him snorting an unnamed powder and looking at pornography. Cathy immediately panics, claiming that her family is in grave danger. What? If Perkins sent this story to NY or other such places, I’m pretty sure no one read past this vision. Its a leap. Chances are, those people (agents/publishers) have either put a powder up their nose or know someone who has and would be offended that this writer would claim them a grave danger, a threat to the lives of others. This was an example of Mormon isolationism at its core.

    I read this differently. I was actually pleasantly surprised at how menacing and naturally evil the authoress made p8rn and drugs. So I would assume that our hypothetical coke-snortin’ video-masturbatin’ NYC editor is going to reject the work not because he’s puzzled but because he’s angry.

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