Lost Among the Living by Simone St. James: echoes of ghosts and a house called Manderley
I have never seen a ghost personally,” says Simone St. James, “but my books are all about the possibility.”
In Lost Among the Living, St. James’ fifth novel set in the early 1920s, Jo Manders is a young woman whose pilot husband has disappeared during the war, leaving her a widow in all but name. To make ends meet she takes a job as companion to her husband’s wealthy aunt Dottie Forsyth. But when they travel to the Forsyth family home in Sussex, Jo is caught up in an eerie world. Mystery surrounds the death of Dottie’s daughter and locals whisper about ghosts and wild dogs in the woods. As the tension rises, Jo learns that there is more to her husband’s past than she knows.
The supernatural is certainly at work in Lost Among the Living but for St. James the possibility of believing in ghosts is important not only for her plot, but also in what it suggests about her character’s wants and desires. Jo Manders is a rational and intelligent young woman, yet the only opportunities for work she has found are as a typist and paid companion. In many ways, she is not the kind of person the reader might expect to see a ghost. But Jo is at a crossroads and perhaps it is her uncertainty and lack of control that leave her open to the supernatural.
The post-war challenges facing women are important to St. James, who agrees that one of her themes in the novel is the amount of autonomy and choice women had in their lives in that era. “Jo,” she says, “was very trapped at the beginning of the story, and Dottie is also trapped in her own way. Jo was also trapped before she met and married her husband, and she wasn’t sure whether marriage would free her or trap her further. I think both women gain in strength and autonomy before the story ends.”
It is clear, then, that St. James was not simply drawn to this period because of “just the beautiful clothes and the wild parties.”
She explains: “The world had changed irreversibly. The women of the 1920s were the first generation of recognizably modern women, who were beginning to have higher education, jobs, and votes. Yet their own parents, in the generation just before them, had lived very different lives. There is a rich amount of conflict there for a writer.” And despite a research process which St. James describes as “haphazard” and “usually consisting of wandering through masses of history books and letting interesting things jump out at me”, the resulting novel is tightly plotted and convincing in its historical detail.
Lost Among the Living is also a book that may stir readers’ memories of other well-loved reads. When asked if Jo Manders is deliberately named to echo the house in Daphne du Maurier’s novel Rebecca, St. James responds with an enthusiastic “yes”.
“Rebecca is one of my favorite books. I first read it when I was twenty, and recently I did a reread at age forty and felt like I was reading an entirely different book, one that said things I’d never picked up before. That is the sign of a true masterpiece. In an indirect way, Lost Among the Living is a sort of tribute to Rebecca and my love for it.”
Fans of du Maurier, Mary Stewart and, more recently, Sarah Waters, will all likely find much to enjoy in Lost Among the Living. St. James confirms that all three writers are influences for her. Other books she admires include Diane Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale and Bram Stoker’s Dracula. She has not, she notes, written a vampire book.
At least not yet.
About the contributor: Kate Braithwaite writes book reviews and features for Bookbrowse and the Historical Novel Society. Her novel, Charlatan, a tale of poison and intrigue in 17th-century France, was long-listed for the Mslexia New Novel Award and the HNS Novel Prize. It will be published by Fireship Press in 2016.