The Supernatural Enhancements by Edgar Cantero
Doubleday, 2014; 353 pp
Reviewed by Jordan Williams
“A natural mystery and reason to face it make the happiest combination of all.”
As a mostly straightforward mystery/ghost story, The Supernatural Enhancements qualifies as genre fiction yet opens itself up to uninitiated readers. In fact, expectations will probably only interrupt the gratification readers are likely to get if they go along for the ride. Edgar Cantero’s novel isn’t the brain-twisting puzzle of a book that I imagined it to be. Reading it, I found myself less an amateur sleuth and more a kid sitting at the campfire, waiting to be encouraged to sneak into the woods alone at night. I almost wish I hadn’t perused the reviews and blurbs that play up Cantero’s eclectic personal interests and the novel’s intricate epistolary format (which most often draws comparisons to Doug Dorst’s S. and Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves) but, then again, my misguided expectations primed me for a pleasant surprise when I encountered the novel’s subversive energy.
This is a generous novel that can be many things to many people, but its subversiveness is ultimately what hooked me. I initially didn’t have much interest in the protagonist, A., an ambiguously European young man who inherits the deed to Axton House upon the suicide of a distant American relative. His mute Irish companion, Niamh, is somewhat more interesting and certainly more animated, but her antics can’t carry the entire novel. Like any good small town mystery, it’s the guarded inhabitants of Point Bless, Virginia who bring Cantero’s story to life. Their reluctance to talk openly about Axton House and its history offsets the exaggerated precociousness exhibited by A. and Niamh throughout the novel. These two lead characters grow quickly, from basically irreverent tourists to persistent truth hounds seeking to understand the secret local customs that Point Bless residents are loathe to expose.
Another misconception I brought to the novel is that its storytelling would be dominated by its epistolary format. TSE is entirely composed of ciphers, book excerpts, diary entries, letters, secret society communiqués, notes and mysterious surveillance tape transcripts, but transitions between these documents are often seamless. I could argue that the format is unnecessary, but it’s also intriguing and never serves as an obstruction. What’s actually much more interesting than the book’s format are the scenes that unexpectedly put me in the mind of Toni Morrison’s classic Beloved. Cantero’s novel is best left unspoiled but readers will be asked to imagine what would happen if a brutal 19th century plantation owner’s obsession with breeding “the perfect slave” left his home haunted for over a century. The novel’s title, which alludes to an Edith Wharton ghost story, foreshadows its spectral content, but you’ve got to get deeper into the text to begin unravelling the history of torment that is “alive within the [Point Bless] community, but seldom verbalized.”
To be clear, the novel is barely allegorical and hardly polemical but, for a book that could be discounted as mere genre fiction, TSE is no less amiable to readers who enjoy searching texts for insight into the human condition. Cantero equips his characters with the requisite psychological baggage to facilitate a little bit of navel-gazing. Facing the real prospect that Axton House might be haunted, A. interestingly deflects his nascent concerns: “I blame believers for my skepticism. Because they’re not up to it; they’re no challenge; they’re so easily proved fools.” Believers making fools of themselves is something of a theme in the novel, as is evidenced by the successes that young Niamh and A. have in thwarting the plans of some very coordinated secret groups.
Cantero’s other career is as a cartoonist, which may explain his keen eye for detail. From the start, readers should be prepared to know exactly how many windows are on each level of Axton House, where they’re placed in relation to the portico, that the house has a mansard roof, et cetera. The precision of the novel’s diction can mostly be ascribed to A., who has learned English by reading Lovecraft and therefore writes in sentences that are just perfect enough to be slightly awkward and subtly beautiful. It’s easy to imagine that this explanation covers the Spanish-born Cantero as well, since this is his first English language novel, but his wordsmithing smacks of real skill. Readers who hold their expectations lightly and open themselves to the steady revelations of a diligently-told mystery will be rewarded with a good deal of fun and an ending that’s designed to get people talking.