THE DEATH OF TORBERTA TURCHIN by Shannon Mawhiney
CreateSpace, 2011, 208 pages, 978-1460937907, Paperback, $12,99
Torberta Turchin, Torby for short, is a fourteen-year old girl who can hear ghosts. That ability has landed her at St. Christopher’s Academy—a half boarding school, half sanitarium—where she is one of the longest term residents. When Torby isn’t dreading visits to her borderline-abusive adoptive family, she splits her time between her two living friends, Rueben and Yvonne, and her dead friend, Charlie. Before long, however, sinister events begin taking place, threatening not only Torby’s school-cum-haven, but her life as well.
Torby’s most important relationship is with Charlie. He’s been with Torby ever since she can remember, and it’s through his explanations that the reader gains an understanding of the rules Mawhiney has defined for ghost-human interactions. Generally, the only people who can see and speak with ghosts are those who have died and then come back to life (think of someone getting defibrillated after their heart has stopped beating), but Torby’s a special case; she’s never died, so she can’t see ghosts, but, for reasons unknown, she was born with the ability to hear them. Mawhiney’s clear-cut parameters are a definite asset to the story. When an author picks a set of rules and sticks with them, particularly in paranormal scenarios, it makes the world internally consistent and believable.
Another strength of Mawhiney’s is her depiction of atmosphere. No matter where the characters are, the creepiness is evident. St. Christopher’s has such presence that it’s almost like another character. In a way, it is reminiscent of Bloor’s Academy in The Children of the Red King series, where you’re waiting for the floor boards to up and start eating people. I like that this sense of dread carries itself over to the house of Torby’s hostile family, the Henricksons. It gives consistency to the novel’s tone, making it clear that just because the heroine is away from school doesn’t mean she is out of danger.
Although The Death of Torbert Turchin is not a light book, it does a good job of keeping away from teen angst overload. A lot of awful things happen to Torby, but only once does she succumb to her depressive urges. While I found her a little tiresome during that chapter, I concede that her behavior makes sense in the context of the story. Mawhiney manages Torby well otherwise, and she creates a character who is not perfect, but who is more engaging and realistic for it.
This goes for the auxiliary characters as well. When the antagonists turn villainous, their changes are rooted in aspects of who they are, so it doesn’t seem forced or outlandish. One of them wants to transition out of ghosthood so badly that it has eroded his sanity, and the other behaves with the same incredible selfishness that he has exhibited throughout the story.
But while their misdeeds are in keeping with their personalities, Mawhiney doesn’t soften the depth of the antagonists’ crimes. Much like it has clear-cut rules about ghostly contact, Mawhiney’s world doesn’t waste time pretending that actions don’t have consequences. It is these consequences that had the greatest impact for me; up until the very shocking end, I was waiting for the event that was sure to wrap up all of the conflicts with a neat bow. After I got over my surprise, it was refreshing to realize that the author was willing to take her work to grim places.
Though I have to say, despite the nearly overwhelming presence of death in the novel, I found it surprisingly hopeful. This is probably due to the fact that I am really into unconsummated, slightly ambiguous romance (patron saint of doomed ships right here). I loved the dynamic between Charlie and Torby. He’s mature, kind, and protective without being overbearing, and she clearly adores him, choosing his company over her own desire to appear “normal.” Even when Torby doesn’t treat Charlie well, he takes it in stride and waits for her to realize her mistakes, which, to her credit, she typically does pretty quickly.
Especially charming is how Charlie’s a twenty-year-old guy, give or take eighty years, but he’s still as chivalrous as the day is long. In one stand out scene, he won’t go into the girl’s bathroom, going so far as to send a lady ghost in for him. I love that Mawhiney includes character beats like this. Not only does it make her writing more nuanced, but it also lends some levity to a novel dealing with subject matter that could easily veer into melodramatic territory.
If you’re looking to enter into the world of self-published titles, The Death of Torberta Turchin is an excellent place to start. The characters are endearing and believable, the atmosphere is deliciously dark, and everything comes together well, governed by cohesive internal logic.
Thank you to Shannon Mawhiney for providing a review copy of this novel.