while in Africa this summer. If you've been around the blog awhile, you know I visited my brother and his family in Tanzania this summer. All those plane rides (five each way) and some... er, down time (as in, no electricity much of the time, limited internet, and no cable)... while there meant that I was a reading machine during the month of July.
One of the books I read that I never really talked about was Ronlyn Domingue's The Mercy of Thin Air. It was a super-difficult book to get into (similar to Pete Nelson's I Thought You Were Dead, which I also read while in Africa), but -- like Nelson's book -- when I did finally lose myself in the prose, I adored it. Domingue is a first-time novelist, with another writing career in the nonfiction sector (as a contributor to the online literary magazine The Nervous Breakdown).
The Mercy of Thin Air was difficult from the get-go, namely because it involves a ghost story of the non-haunting sort. As in, narrator Razi is a ghost, but not a scary ghost. I love a good scary story, like I love a good scary movie, but non-scary ghost stories don't always make the most interesting reading material. The only exception I can think of is Audrey Niffenegger's Her Fearful Symmetry. (But I'm getting sidetracked, as Domingue's novel has little in common with Niffenegger's foray into the ghost world, save their ghosts-as-characters.)
Killed in a tragic accident in the 1920s, main character and narrator Razi floats away from her body and into an in-between state few ever experience. Razi remains on earth in this vaporous state as a result of her own choice. Given the opportunity to remain in the human world, Razi does so in order to watch over her now-heartbroken lover Andrew. But there are rules to this newly-found state that Razi must learn; in turn, she teaches newly minted ghosts what they can and can't do.
Many decades later Razi finds a couple who buys a piece of furniture with a link to her past. Amy and Scott make the novel richer with their own issues, and Razi discovers even more connections between the three of them as she coexists in their home.
Part of what made the novel difficult in the beginning is what also makes it wonderful in the end. Although the unrealistic premise was hard to swallow at first, the hazy, otherworldly nature of The Mercy of Thin Air allows Domingue to examine human relationships on a whole new level. Razi's feelings as a spirit are magnified, but at the same time they echo Amy's emotions as a living being.
The Mercy of Thin Air is a deeply moving novel full of imagination and richly drawn characters. Once you read past the first thirty or so pages, you will be hooked on both the story and the characters. As a bonus, Domingue's setting is one of my favorite places on earth -- New Orleans, Louisiana, in the 1920s flashback scenes, and other locations in Louisiana in other parts of the book.
For more from Domingue, you'll have to wait until her second novel is released at a as-of-yet unknown date. Or, you can browse through her archive of nonfiction essays and interviews on The Nervous Breakdown. One of my favorite entries is her essay about earning a less-than-glowing review from the New York Times. Yes, it was that bad. But Domingue has learned to live with it. (As an aside, it is an example of why I rarely write reviews of books I dislike -- or why I don't finish reading them. What's the point? Let me tell you about books you'll enjoy, not ones you'll despise. For me, The Mercy of Thin Air was highly enjoyable.)