Review The Spirit Engineer – A.J. West

Belfast, 1914. Two years after the sinking of the Titanic, high society has become obsessed with spiritualism in the form of seances that attempt to contact the spirits of loved ones lost at sea.

William is a man of science and a sceptic, but one night with everyone sat around the circle something happens that places doubt in his heart and a seed of obsession in his mind. Could the spirits truly be communicating with him or is this one of Kathleen’s parlour tricks gone too far?

I requested this book from Netgalley purely based on the cover. I didn’t even read the blurb… so I only learned when it came to the acknoledgements that it is based on a true story. Which then again lead me to the author’s website and his interview with the descendants of both William and Kathleen, alongside a whole heap of research he has done for this book. Which only made me more intrigued by this fascinating story.

A reoccuring message throughout the book is Death is a beginning, and so we start the book of with William’s suicide. So we know the story isn’t going to end well… But it doesn’t spoil anything. Although we do get an inkling throughout the book as to the why, we are never certain of it till about 90% into the book. And it is still unclear as to why the real William killed himself (Arthur Conan Doyle actually speculates that it was his final big experiment regarding the realness of spiritualism).

Then we move back in time to his introduction to spiritualism. William isn’t a very nice person to begin with, but more in a realistic product of his time kind of way. (From the interview with his descendants I also understand that he probably had Asperger’s… which doesn’t necessarily make him an unlikeable person but does explain his obsessiveness). Starting as a true sceptic of spiritualism, and in need of money, he starts of a host of experiments to find out if these seances are real and the science behind them. We follow his grow in fame and decline into madness.

Now I need to put in some content warnings for the book. Like I said there is suicide on the page. There is also some sexual inappropriatness (with lack of a better word… It isn’t quite abuse but it is enough to make one feel quite uncomfortable), as well as talk of domestic violence.

The writing in this book is stunning. It is beautiful yet very effortless, and managed to suck me in right from the start. I can struggle with a short attention span (especially when reading on my phone), but had no problem reading this book for hours on end.

The atmosphere was spot on, with the the feeling of unease and minor hauntings slowly seeping in from the start, perfectly leading towards that very dramatic ending. And there is a good sense of its time as well, both in William’s ideas and his experiments, the treatment of women, the rise in interest in spiritualism around the first World War and the sinking of the Titanic.

I absolutely adored this book, which is a fascinating character study that just sucked me in right from the start. One I would highly recommend.

6 thoughts on “Review The Spirit Engineer – A.J. West

    1. I thought it was a great read by itself, but finding out afterwards that it was based on real events made it so much better. Especially when I watched the video where the author talks/speculates with the (great)grand children of the characters


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