Finalist for the Believer Book Award for Fiction
Named a Best Book of Fall by Vulture, New York Magazine, and more
"A ravishing novel charged with the idea of the incommunicable." —The New Yorker
Eleven-year-old Jane Grandison, tormented by her stutter, sits in the back seat of a car, letter in hand inviting her to live and study at the Sybil Joines Vocational School for Ghost Speakers & Hearing-Mouth Children. Founded in 1890 by Headmistress Sybil Joines, the school—at first glance—is a sanctuary for children seeking to cure their speech impediments. Inspired by her haunted and tragic childhood, the Headmistress has other ideas.
Pioneering the field of necrophysics, the Headmistress harnesses the “gift” she and her students possess. Through their stutters, together they have the ability to channel ghostly voices communicating from the land of the dead, a realm the Headmistress herself visits at will. Things change for the school and the Headmistress when a student disappears, attracting attention from parents and police alike.
Set in the overlapping worlds of the living and the dead, Shelley Jackson’s Riddance is an illuminated novel told through theoretical writings in necrophysics, the Headmistress’s dispatches from the land of the dead, and Jane’s evolving life as Joines’s new stenographer and central figure in the Vocational School’s mysterious present, as well as its future.
This clever, cacophonous novel of metaphysical gothic from Jackson (Half Life) teems with voices of the living and the dead. The Sybil Joines Vocational School is a Massachusetts institution in which children with speech impediments are taught "necrophysics," intended to give them the ability to become "mouthpieces for the dead." They are chosen because, according to Sybil Joines, the founding headmistress, "stuttering, like writing, is an amateur form of necromancy." The novel comprises documents about the early history of the academy compiled by a historian: a newspaper account of the murder of a visiting school inspector that serves as the book's central mystery; the autobiography of star student Jane Grandison, a girl who acts as the headmistress's stenographer; and the tubercular headmistress's "final dispatch" (or ghost-channeling session). Also included are observations from a linguistic anthropologist on the school's quack methods, "calculated... to instill a keen sense of the insignificance of the individual and the flimsiness of his or her claim to existence." Full of Carrollian logic and whimsical grotesquerie, the tale, which leads up to the campus slaying, is an illuminating allegory of fiction writing, for "the necrocosmos is made of language; we precipitate a world with every word we speak." Joines is a remarkable creation in a wonderful book an imperious, otherworldly, and damaged figure who, haunted by her childhood, devises and devotes her life to a haunted philosophy.