Where Ideas Grow

A blog for students of creative writing at York St John University

A review of Julie Cohen’s ‘Spirited’

Spirited is a beautifully evocative piece of historical fiction, full of haunting prose. This is the first book I have read by Julie Cohen, and I have to say, I can’t wait to read more.  

Before I discuss my feelings about the story, I will give you an overview of the beginning.  

The novel begins on the wedding day of Viola Godwin, to her best friend, Jonah Worth. Jonah has just returned to Wiltshire, after four years in India, four years which he refuses to speak about because of the trauma. Viola has recently lost her father and is struggling with the loss. This should be the happiest day of their lives, but the time apart has changed them, yet they cannot escape their duty to marry one another.  

The couple move to the Island of Portland, Dorset, where Viola begins to recover from her grief, but she still refuses to take photographs – a hobby she was taught and shared with her father. Jonah encourages her to start again, and when she does, she discovers she has a talent for capturing spirits in her photographs. Meanwhile, a spirit medium, Henriette, has arrived on the island, and the photographs draw her attention to Viola. As they spend time together, they are drawn more and more to each other. The two women could not be more different – Henriette is assertive and audacious, and Viola is quiet and demure, but both are strong and courageous in their own ways.  

Whilst it draws us on the journey of their love, it also weaves in Jonah’s story, and what happened to him in India. He was involved in the Siege of Delhi and is lauded as a hero for rescuing a young girl, but his scars run too deep for him to accept anyone’s praise. Cohen pulls all these plot threads into a compelling story about grief, love, and loss.  

I think this story was a very slow burn, and whilst that may be necessary to establish the mystery of the piece, it may be a struggle for some people at first. But, once the story picks up, it is a captivating read. I especially enjoyed the gradual unfolding of the love story between the two main women, but there are plenty of side characters who add flavour and depth to the piece by being fully realized people with their own lives, wants and needs. Cohen’s decision to feature scraps of fictional newspaper articles, books and other documents which gave a ‘factual’ view of the events of the book were also delightful and helped to draw the reader deeper into the world of the story.

Charlotte Carlile

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