Finding Emmaus is a beginning. On a prosaic level, it’s the first volume in Pamela Glasner’s ‘Lodestarre’ series; but, more than this, the entire movement of the story is towards putting the pieces in place which (one assumes) will be played out in the rest of the series. The build-up is decent enough, but it leaves the book in an awkward position, as it feels to me that the most interesting stuff is yet to come.
The central conceit of Finding Emmaus is the existence of ‘Empathy’, a suite of psychic abilities (including, but not limited to, that of experiencing the feelings of others) which have been mistaken over the centuries for mental illness. Two narratives alternate: the first is the life-story of Francis Nettleton, an early settler of Conneticut. Tragedy stalks Frank’s life as he discovers his Empathic abilities; but he resolves as an adult to learn all he can about Empathy, and compile a ‘guidebook’ to the subject (which text he calls The Lodestarre). The second narrative is set in the present day, and follows Katherine Spencer; a parapsychologist friend suggests that her ‘bipolar disorder’ (which hasn’t responded to treatment) may actually be Empathy, and Katherine embarks on a journey in search of Frank Nettleton’s old house, Emmaus – and the lost manuscript of The Lodestarre.
The biggest problem with the novel, I find, is a lack of true involvement at the deeper level of the prose. For example, there’s a scene depicting a powerful sermon – but the preacher’s charisma stays on the page. We hear a lot about what Empathy is, what it involves… but I can’t say that the prose evoked for me a sense of what it feels like. There are other examples, but I think these suffice to illustrate my point: generally speaking, the words don’t do enough to create the affect of what they describe. There are some places where Glasner’s prose does work well – an early passage where Katherine hears an intruder in her house builds tension nicely, for example; and the book’s closing sentences stir the emotions – but they are too much the exception rather than the rule.
Another issue with Finding Emmaus is an awkwardness of structure. The alternation of Frank’s and Katherine’s stories sets up a nice rhythm for the novel; but, after Katherine finds the Lodestarre manuscript, the book changes gear – relationships change, and the issue of mistreatment of those deemed mentally ill (which has been bubbling under throughout) comes strongly to the fore. But all this is done rather too quickly, in a way that seems artificial and draws too much attention to itself, lessening the impact of this section.
The title of the novel doesn’t just refer to Frank’s house; to Katherine, Emmaus represents ‘shelter from the storm’ – a place where she can feel safe as an Empath and perhaps, by book’s end, a bastion against the coming storm… But to continue down that path would be to move beyond the present volume. And there’s the rub because, going back to what I said earlier, the present volume feels too much like the prelude to the main event – which is fine for the next book in the series, but less so for this one. Yes, Finding Emmaus is a beginning; but I wish it were a better whole.