BAR HARBOR — “Grace Coffin and the Badly-Sewn Corpse,” a new novel by local author Bowen Swersey, has two main characters. One is dead, and the other is a teenage girl. They take turns narrating parallel stories, which come together in the end.
Both narrators represent leaps of the imagination for Swersey, who writes under the pen name Winter Fox.
The story is set on Mount Desert Island, mostly in Southwest Harbor, but with some scenes set in Bar Harbor, Acadia National Park and a mysterious location in the afterlife described as “a lovely little patio with a fountain.”
The revelation that main character Cormac Boisverde dies in Chapter Three is not really a spoiler, since the cause of his death is described on the back of the book as a “tragic car accident.”
Cormac chooses to return to earth and wrap up unfinished business not as a ghost, or vampire, but as a “revenant” (from the French revenir, to return). This is a scary-looking but relatively benign form of undead. Unlike a vampire, a revenant is self-sufficient enough not to need food from the living.
Cormac spends most of his time hiding out in a large stone urn he built when he was alive and working as a stone mason.
Grace Coffin, a 17-year-old high school student, moves into Cormac’s old house with her family. Hers is a coming-of-age story in which she learns to play guitar, smokes pot, falls in love with the boy next door and tries to make peace with her past.
As the story unfolds the reader learns that Grace was sexually molested as a young teenager and continues to fight off bullies who sexually harass her at school. The theme of women overcoming sexual abuse runs throughout the book.
One of the most poignant scenes is between Grace and a woman in her 70s, a cruise ship passenger from Iowa whom Grace meets on the Bar Harbor Shore Path. After making small talk, the old woman launches into her own story of being molested as a child, which catches Grace off guard.
“‘Why are you telling me this?’ I asked, looking at her.
“She met my gaze frankly and said, ‘I have a secret power. Ever since then, I can tell who’s been through what I’ve been through. Especially if it was someone they thought they could trust. They’re the worst, you know.’”
In general, the author does well writing from the point of view of a teenage girl, though a couple scenes fall short. As a reader, I cringed when I read Grace’s self-loathing thoughts after arguing with her mother and step-father: “I hated it when they teamed up on me, even if it happened when I was a raging bitch. I was probably getting my period.”
The author’s ability to step into the point of view of a dead character is impressive, even given that, as he says, he designed the character after himself.
Cormac’s transition from a living person to a revenant is eased by his friendship with Micky, who continues hanging out with him despite the fact that he’s dead. Micky, with his ability to take things in stride, provides comic relief to the novel.
“Look, I thought dead was dead,” Micky tells Cormac in their first meeting after the fatal accident.
“It is, mostly … let’s keep this between the two of us.”
“The fact that I’m going crazy and seeing dead people? You can count on it.”
Eventually Micky agrees to get Cormac whatever he needs: tools to alter his urn into a comfortable home, and supplies such as salt to preserve himself. The two of them even play Wii golf.
Cormac haunts the local man, Billy Walls, who was responsible for the fatal accident he died in. He also takes an interest in Grace’s case, eventually helping her confront her abuser.
The fast-moving plot has several twists and turns. The reader, like Micky, must follow the story as it moves between the everyday world and the supernatural world.
Swersey said he had two inspirations for writing the book. One was to make a contribution to the “#MeToo movement” — the movement to openly talk about sexual violence.
“In the dialog of the MeToo movement, where are the men’s voices here?” Swersey said in an author interview. “This book is my statement to that. Men are also affected by violence against women: it’s a societal problem.
“I have just known so many people who have been through what Grace has been through, and I wanted to write a hopeful story for them,” he continued.
His other inspiration is his “fascination with death and undeath. There’s something about the idea of undeath that’s comforting to the mortal soul.” Swersey believes he has written the first novel about a revenant, which he describes as “sort of like an unwrapped mummy.”
“Grace Coffin and the Badly-Sewn Corpse” is the first in a three-book series, which continues in “Grace Coffin and the Undertakers.” The books are self-published, and available at Sherman’s Books, local libraries and on Amazon.com.
Winter Fox, a.k.a. Swersey, will meet readers and sign books at Sherman’s Books in Bar Harbor on Sat. Oct. 26.
The following week, Swersey will be give a book talk at Southwest Harbor Library on Wed. Oct. 30 at 5:30 p.m. He will read excerpts from the three Grace Coffin books, and talk about self-publishing.