One might not expect a novel about an ornithologist whose job is to sit on a stool and keep an eye on an eagle’s nest for hours on end to be especially exciting. As it turns out, however, one would be wrong. In the first pages of Louise Young’s captivating debut novel, Seducing the Spirits, protagonist Jenny Dunfree finds herself unceremoniously kicked from the bed of her graduate supervisor and thrust into the wilds of Panama–a journey that includes but is not limited to a bumpy ride on a jeep (complete with howler monkeys screaming almost incessantly in the distance) and an even bumpier flight on an airplane piloted by a man with a gold star enameled to his front tooth. Yet as rough as Dunfree’s trip out to the jungle may be, her real journey–a complex one rife with spiritual, emotional, and social peril–has only begun.
In addition to learning that her job is to keep an eye on an eagle’s nest, Dunfree’s only other instructions are not to, in the words of her director, piss off any of the indigenous people who have allowed the ornithologist access to the nest. Needless to say, this is easier said than done. Though she’s fluent in Spanish, Dunfree doesn’t speak the language of the local Kuna people, and she can’t even begin to understand the intricacies of their culture. Adding to Dunfree’s woes is the fact that her apparently WASPish Midwest background renders her particularly unprepared for the relative lack of restraint with which the Kunas live. Indeed, one of the things that makes Seducing the Spirits such an engaging read is that the cultural difference between Dunfree and the Kunas creates a space of genuine give and take, a true sense of negotiation that is largely absent in the modern “civilized” world. For as much as it divides them, the cultural gap between Dunfree and the Kunas also presents an opportunity for learning and (especially for Dunfree) personal growth. Jarred from the relative comfort and certainty of life in civilization, Dunfree begins to discover her true self on the borderland that lies between the known world and the unknown.
Despite its terrestrial setting, Seducing the Spirits has all of the trappings of great science fiction: an “alien” culture, a protagonist who serves as our surrogate, and a firm understanding that we can learn a lot about ourselves by examining people who are, on the surface, so different from us. What’s more, the fact that the novel is set in the here and now only serves to underscore the amount of wonder that is still left in our world–a wonder that’s not only limited to the alien terrain of foreign lands and cultures, but which also exists in the relatively unexplored depths of the human heart. Exploring both alien worlds simultaneously and expertly, Louise Young has produced a novel that is bound to enchant.
Marc Schuster is the Associate Fiction Editor for Philadelphia Stories and the author of The Singular Exploits of Wonder Mom and Party Girl.