Review: The Spirit Engineer by A.J. West

I received a copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for my honest review. This did not affect my opinion of the book in any way.

Publisher: Duckworth Books

Published: October 2021



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?

This early 20th century gothic set in Northern Ireland contains all the mystery and intrigue one might expect from a Sarah Waters novel. Deftly plotted with echoes of The Woman in Black, readers will be thrilled to discover West’s chilling prose.

Based on the true story of William Jackson Crawford and famed medium Kathleen Goligher, and with a cast of characters that include Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini, The Spirit Engineer conjures a haunting tale that will keep readers guessing until the very end.

My Thoughts…

If you’re looking for a creepy read for spooky season, look no further! The Spirit Engineer is a wonderfully crafted tale that will haunt you and chill you to the bone.

Based on a true story, the book is narrated by William Jackson Crawford, a man of science trying to carve his place in early 20th-century Belfast society who scoffs at the masses’ recent obsessions with seances following the tragedy of the Titanic. He soon discovers however that his own wife frequents a medium, Kathleen Goligher, in a desperate attempt to contact her brother, lost at sea. When William joins her, intent on exposing the medium for the fraud she most certainly is, something terrible happens that forces him to doubt all his convictions and wonder: could the spirits really be trying to communicate with him?

What follows is a masterclass in characterisation and unreliable narration, aided by the author’s rich prose. All characters and events are filtered by William’s perception and, as we follow him on his journey to becoming the famed Spirit Engineer, we witness first-hand the level of his obsession, and the depths he will sink to in his quest for the truth.

All the characters are beautifully drawn, each with their own individual flaws and with the full acknowledgement from the readers’ part of how their circumstances (social, of gender, sexuality and so on) affect and guide their behaviour. Most of the characters are profoundly dislikeable and each operates their own deceptions, both of themselves and of those around them, and I hated them in the best possible way.

The plot itself is simple yet intricate enough to have kept me guessing right until the end. Looking back, some of the answers had clearly been foreshadowed but, like the great Houdini, the author worked a gorgeous misdirection that I completely fell for. It had been a while since I had been so completely surprised by a book, and I enjoyed it greatly. That being said, there were some parts where the narrative lagged a bit, which made it feel heavier than it was, but that’s probably due to personal taste more than anything else.

Overall, The Spirit Engineer is a fantastic debut, which easily earns its place as one of my favourites this year so far. I’m greatly looking forward to seeing what A.J. West will bring us next, and in the meantime I will be planning my re-read of this book for the next spooky season!

Rating: 4.5/5

Four butterflies to indicate rating.

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