Katharine Coldiron’s Ceremonials is a novel inspired by the Florence + The Machine album by the same name. I knew that going in, but until I dove into its pages, I had no idea what to expect—would it be readable? Would it be derivative? Would it rely too heavily on Florence Welch’s words?
Thankfully, the novel is wonderfully readable and unique. The prose itself is highly lyrical in nature, so it does justice to the album even without directly quoting the songs. Personally, I know a lot of Florence + The Machine music well, but I don’t know this album as well as others, so I’m sure there are references in the text that went over my head. However, I didn’t feel like I was missing out—the novel stands firmly on its own.
At its core, Ceremonials is a comprehensive meditation on the grief that stems from the loss of a loved one. Amelia loses Corisande, the love of her life and the closest thing to family she has known, just before their graduation ceremony. Death cannot part the two lovers, however, and Amelia continues to invite the ghost of Corisande into her life and even her bed. The novel is divided into twelve chapters (equal to the number of tracks on the standard-length Florence + The Machine album), and those chapters flit back and forth between the two voices as the novel progresses, sometimes diving headfirst into the deepest, darkest moments and sometimes pulling the reader back. For instance, we see Corisande’s death from her point of view—we are privy to her thoughts as she ignores Amelia’s pleas to stay safe and dips into the too-cold water, answering a call she’s heard since she was small. However, it is also Corisande who shows us Amelia pulling her body out of the water and failing to resuscitate her. We see that the moment is traumatic for Amelia, but we aren’t in her head when it happens. Instead, we learn the full depth of her despair through the meandering, disconnected path she takes as she leaves school and ventures into the world on her own. The author’s choice to create that distance at key moments was unexpected and brilliant, since it didn’t leave the story any space to lean on clichés as it progressed.
While the narrative bounces between voices, most of the story is told through Amelia’s voice. She is, after all, the one who had to survive, the one who had to figure out how to live without her lover, the one who had to find her footing in the march of time that never slows, not even for the grieving. She does everything that is expected of a young adult—finds an apartment, finds a job, finds several hookups—without emotionally connecting to any of it. She is existing, but she isn’t living. It isn’t until she meets The Bull that she’s ready to fully process her grief and search for more fulfillment within that existence.
A return to the school sets the final act in motion. It is years later, as we understand from “the fingers of age” plucking at Amelia’s skin. Corisande’s ghost, perturbed by Amelia’s relationship with The Bull, has finally retreated from Amelia’s apartment. In response, Amelia drives back to where it all began, heading toward “the curtain,” as she describes the divide between her life now and the death in her past. She and Corisande’s ghost converse again, but this time Amelia is determined to remain in her own present. She has found her voice, and it is stronger than the voice of the dead.
Amelia and Corisande are strong, well-developed characters that pull the reader through the plot of this novel with ease. But of course, there is always a cast of supporting characters, and that cast housed my only qualms with this story. The Directress stands out as a big question mark because I was unable to figure out what greater purpose she served to the text. She moved alongside the girls, but there was no great meeting between them that justified such a significant presence for her. The Bull also raised my hackles—perhaps the intention, since he is the reason Corisande’s ghost departs, but his existence struck me as insulting. Why did it need to be a man who inspired substantial change in Amelia’s life? I breathed a sigh of relief when Amelia started ignoring his calls.
I sat with the book in my hands for several minutes after I finished it, mulling it over and searching for my overall reaction to it. Amelia’s complete transformation as a character surfaced as the novel’s strongest accomplishment. Her navigation of loss is recognizable and relatable, even if you’ve never lost someone that close. More impressively, she manages to overcome that loss and find a way to live for herself, something everyone struggles with as they get older. Even considering my gripes with some of the side characters, this novel was a pleasure to read.
Publisher: Kernpunkt Press
Publication date: February 11, 2020
by Hannah VanDuinen