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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Hodgson

The Spirit Engineer by AJ West

If you follow me on social media, then you’ll know that I’ve been talking about The Spirit Engineer quite a lot recently! It really has made an impression on me, and it’s one of those reads that stays with you long after you’ve read the final page.

The story starts in Belfast in 1914 and follows the experiments of Professor William Jackson Crawford, a man of science, as he attempts to prove or disprove the claim of young medium Kathleen Goligher that the she can commune with the spirits of those who have passed on. This chilling tale is based on true events, but I purposefully didn’t read up on William and Kathleen until after I’d finished the book because I didn’t want to read any potential spoilers about their story!

Genre-wise, this novel glides along a line between historical fiction and gothic ghost story, and it excels as both. The author’s careful attention to detail makes the portrayal of the time period feel incredibly real, even right down to some of the attitudes of the time which may make our modern audience wince a bit. It’s a criticism I see fairly often levelled at works of historical fiction, and I’m a usually quite bemused as to why people expect something different from a work set in a past which isn’t re-envisioned in any way. West gets the tone just right here and the narrative voice feels genuinely of the period.

Our protagonist, William, is such a complex and layered character and I really enjoyed West’s portrayal of him. He can be surprisingly funny, and I did not expect to be chuckling quite as much as I did at the book; it was a pleasant surprise! William is also deeply flawed: He is jealous, he can be mean and he is prone to self-aggrandising a little too frequently. He is also, however, quite vulnerable at times, and the balance of different character traits made him that much more believable as a man of the time and his story more emotive as a result. He may not be a likeable character, but he feels authentic. As the story is a first person narrative, this fact is important. In contrast, Aunt Adelia sometimes reads like a caricature worthy of Dickens! We see her only through William's eyes and his dislike for her comes through loud and clear. I found I looked forward to their interactions immensely; she was delightfully insufferable!

As with all good ghost stories, the pace of the novel is, for the most part, a slow burn. We are introduced to the characters and their world slowly and carefully and the story gathers pace as it picks up speed and hurtles towards its quite extraordinary climax. I certainly did not see that ending coming! What West really excels at, from this point of view, is creating atmosphere. This novel at times is eerie and tense, and I can honestly say that it’s the most haunting ghost story I’ve read since The Woman in Black. I’ve always maintained that Hill’s novel is a masterclass in building atmosphere and The Spirit Engineer definitely measures up alongside it.

In summary, this book is stunning (including visually as there are illustrations by the extremely talented Andy Goff to mark the section breaks in the book) Given that this is a debut novel, I cannot wait to see what AJ West does next. I know that I'll be first in line to read it.

AJ very kindly answered some interview questions on his experiences getting published for a previous post, so please do give that a read too if you haven’t already.

The Spirit Engineer is out now.

Thank you to Insta Book Tours and Duckworth Books for the advance copy of the book.


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