sensuous novel set in the salons of Gilded Age New York City,
colonial India and the jungles of Ceylon, Edward Hower imagines
the story of the most scandalous couple of the nineteenth century.
Based on the adventures of Madame Helena Blavatsky, the Russian-born
seer notorious the world over for her claims to psychic powers,
Shadows and Elephants draws us into the world of a free-spirited
woman accused of being one of history's most accomplished imposters.
Equally fascinating is her partner, a popular journalist based
on the Civil War hero Colonel Henry Olcott. Beloved by Manhattan
society for mystical gatherings in their exotic parlor, they leave
America amidst a storm of controversy, and set out for adventures
in the Orient on a quest for the secrets of Eastern wisdom.
Hailed by The Philadelphia Inquirer as a writer whose work is
"Breathtakingly fresh and gripping…weird, haunting,
and magical," Hower has written a novel about the rare and
tempestuous friendship between a woman and a man who defined occultism
in America. Shadows and Elephants is rich in contemporary resonance,
for indeed, Spiritualism has survived for over a century, reshaped
today in eclectic New Age beliefs.
"Irena Milanova is a Russian émigré who makes
her mark in late-19th-centuryNew York society by holding seances
that wow the city's intellectuals. Capt. Benjamin Blackburn is
a Civil War veteran and a journalist, a man who is fascinated
with the supernatural and accustomed to smoking out frauds. They
should clash, but instead they click: Milanova wants a stamp of
approval, while Blackburn secretly seeks ''something more, something
real.'' They become friends and then founders of the spiritualist
Alexandrian Society. When chased from New York by scandal, they
flee to India and finally Ceylon. Based on the lives of Helena
Blavatsky (known as Madame Blavatsky) and her partner, Col. Henry
Olcott, Edward Hower's fifth novel is an expert portrait of the
era when hard-nosed science was moving in on spiritualism, a paradigm
shift that would eventually relegate psychics and mediums to the
fringes. Hower creates complicated characters in Ben and Irena,
and convincingly manages their often tempestuous, though platonic,
relationship. His lush portraits of Asia, as well as a lively
cast of secondary characters, make this a rewarding, often amusing
tale of religious and emotional discovery."
—The New York Times Book Review
"Hower paints a compelling picture of the spiritualist movement
and the celebrities it drew, but the best passages are those that
delve into the motives and emotions of his two flawed protagonists
as they learn why they are drawn to the possibility of miracles,
astral journeys and psychic phenomena. This book works on two
levels, as both history and character study, and it is certain
to be a welcome addition to the small but noteworthy sub-genre
of fiction dealing with spiritualism."
"The seething mood and weather of India are captured memorably
[and the] the ferment of ideas that was colonial India is richly
suggested in the latest from Hower who retells the story of Theosophical
Society founders Madame Blavatsky and Colonel Olcott in their
19th-century quest for a legitimate home for spiritualist beliefs."
"Edward Hower has written a sympathetic and wonderfully
readable study of a brilliant fraud and her chief accomplice.
The characters are based on Madame Blavatsky, the Russian-born
19th century founder of Theosophy, and her protector Colonel Henry
Steel Olcott. The action moves quickly from the United States
to India and Ceylon, the homeland of mystics and fakirs. Hower's
portrait of Blavatsky, however, is full of affection; he presents
her as a survivor, a big heart and a genuine visionary. India,
in Hower's prose, also becomes a major character; it gleams and
sweats with sensuality, mystery and humanity. This is a stunning
book, vivid, dramatic and full of warmth."
"Edward Hower's novel is an exploration of personal dynamics,
as well as a document about people who undertake an unusual spiritual
journey. It's a vivid road trip through territory the author sees
in close detail, an affecting story of love and friendship that
is filled with unusual, unexpected (and all too human) twists
"I have never read a book which fulfills so completely John
Gardner's idea that a novel should be a "continuous dream."
From its evocative title to the astonishing "ascension"
of its mysterious heroine at the end, Shadows and Elephants is
a mesmerizing experience for the reader."
"Hower's knowledgeable enchantment with an enchanted India
illuminates this exploration of the peculiar mental and emotional
life of the notorious Madame Blavatsky as she seeks enlightenment
in a land that in no way takes her seriously. A generous and lively
novel, Shadows and Elephants shows that behind the smoke and mirrors
and astral letters, the mystical quest is the biggest maya of
"Edward Hower’s Shadows and Elephants is one of the
most engrossing novels I’ve read in the past few years,
and is certainly the most engaging—and entertaining—novel
I’ve read in quite some time. Given the present rise in
spiritual concerns, connected as they are with questions about
the sterility of materialistic culture, Hower’s superb fictional
evocation of the world of Madame Blavatsky and Colonel Henry Olcott
has a special pertinency today. In describing them and their milieu,
he manages a rare combination of comic irony and sympathetic understanding:
the wry attitude which a tolerant Deity might feel, upon examining
the record to date of the human race. Hilarious as the novel frequently
is, it also takes us into the deeper regions of the psyche. Shadows
and Elephants grows in emotional intensity as it proceeds, and
provides a resolution that strikes me as so inspired I’m
almost inclined to believe that unseen spirits moved the author."
Professor of English, Emeritus, Cornell University
EDWARD HOWER is the author of four previous novels. His writing
has appeared in venues such as The New York Times, The Atlantic
Monthly, The Southern Review, Epoch, The Transatlantic Review,
Smithsonian; his reviews in the nation's most prestigious
book pages. He was inspired to write Shadows and Elephants while
on his second of two Fulbright fellowships and has been awarded
creative writing grants from the New York State Council on the
Arts, The Ingram Merrill Foundation, and the National Endowment
for the Arts. He lives in Ithaca, New York and teaches at Cornell
and Ithaca College.
Read More Edward Hower: His Work
and His Travels
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