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The realm of secondhand souls is a place where antique fabrics hold the secrets of their former owners, where found objects uncover lost worlds, and where a uniquely gifted young woman who has lost nearly everything finally finds herself. In her mesmerizing first novel, Sandra Shea recounts the life of Novena, born on a hot summer night surrounded by a circle of aunts, who offer the protection of their unfettered love. But when Novena is orphaned and sent to live with her aunt Elegia and four boy cousins, she retreats from their boisterous clamor into the realm of her imagination. It provides safe haven for years -- until she is forced back into the world by a tragic disappearance connected to her cousin Zan, torturer of all creatures smaller than himself. Blaming herself for the tragedy, Novena escapes to live with her great-aunt Annaluna, who is besieged by demons of her own, including the ones that reside in the hundreds of shoes that fill her apartment. It is only when Novena stumbles into a vintage clothing store called God of Sand that she begins to recognize her special gifts of insight. In the tattered folds of yesterday's suits and chemises, she can sense the hidden histories and memories that help her stitch her life back together. The setting for THE REALM OF SECONDHAND SOULS is unmistakably contemporary, yet time and place remain deliberately filmy, beautifully illustrating the vaporous, murky boundaries between our dreams and our memories, between the seen and the unseen, and between past and present in a modern world where nostalgia is paramount. Sandra Shea's magical novel is a story of how our families possess us and how our possessions become our family. Enter this mysterious and unforgettable realm, and you will never want to leave.
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Sandra Shea was the founding editor of the Boston Phoenix Literary Supplement. She currently writes for the Philadelphia Daily News, where she serves on the editorial board.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
<div>Chapter 1<br><br>Novena was born just as her name would have you picture: surrounded by a halo of candles and eight praying women. It was a hot, still summer night and the hum of prayers sounded like a swarm of cicadas, the buzz that surrounds lawn mowers and tall glasses beaded with sweat.<br>They were far from lawn mowers, being in the middle of the city, in an ancient apartment that resented the modern age and mournfully released memories of its former glory like a vapor through its rooms: a lingering trace of cigar smoke in deep green drapes, a brief flash of the corner of a rose-colored plush velvet sofa, the ghost of a man in a hat reading the newspapers.<br>In the bedroom, her about-to-be aunt Quivera was everywhere, fetching ice and blankets, mopping her sister's face, as much in help as in the constant activity of anxiety. Of Catorza's two sisters, Quivera was the practical, antiseptic one, and found the ordeal of birth painful to witness. So much blood. So much mess, and impossible to control. So much heaving and screaming from Catorza, who seemed to be expelling all of her insides. Still, for all the mess, Novena would end up sliding out quietly, almost gracefully, and manage to retain the ability to stay quiet in the midst of chaos until much later in her life.<br>The other women around the bedside included Catorza's other sister, Elegia, who was praying particularly hard since she thought herself the only sister among them strong enough to withstand the rigors of birth, a stamina she had put to constant practice.<br>The midwife, Celantra, an old family friend, was called upon whenever the services of a voodoo, healer, or guide were needed, although you needed to occasionally remind her what role the particular moment required, since she was known to bring forceps when a live chicken was more in order, and vice versa. At this moment, she was pawing through a large satchel, trying to remember what she was looking for.<br>Jakarta, a neighbor who traveled up and down the coast performing in small blues clubs as part of a trio, had just arrived with the other two members of her trio for whatever musical accompaniment the night might require.<br>Fanning herself furiously in the corner was Margita, Catorza's best friend, a worldly but easily rattled woman who had come by train from a distant city. And finally there was a great-aunt, Annaluna, the only black-veil-wearer among them. She was the one who led the prayers. She was the one who knew all the words, the spotty knowledge of the rest of the women contributing in no small part to the humming sound of their incantations: they were doing a holy version of mouthing the lyrics and humming the melody. Their pinpricks of guilt over the long-forgotten words accounted for the fervor with which they delivered what fragments of prayers they could conjure.<br>Occasionally, Jakarta and her trio would break out of prayer and into actual song, creating a kind of sanctified scatting: Our father. Bap bap bap bee boo. Diddlieopti doo. Deliver us from evil. Da wan. Da wan. Amen.<br>Annaluna threw them occasional sharp glances, but there was a kind of soothing logic to the music, from which Catorza took some comfort.<br>Hours rolled by in a salty, undulating tide which had seeped into the room and taken over: screams and pain, calm and breath, heat and dampness. There wasn't a woman in the room who wasn't used to being pulled by rhythmic tidal forces, and on this night they gave themselves up to it. Time was left to sit quietly in the corner, called upon only in short bursts when Catorza's contractions needed measuring.<br>It was hot, and everyone was sweating. The women had stripped down to their underwear-even Annaluna, whose corset was immense and proud and somehow military in the face of the more dainty, slippery things worn by the younger women. Their dresses formed an airy bundle of color on the floor. When Novena's head finally appeared, Quivera was at the bedside, and in her excitement she bent and grabbed the dress on top of the bundle to wrap her in. It was a cobalt silk owned by Margita, a big, fleshy blonde, who for all her sophisticated flash was the shyest among them and had been the last to peel out of her clothes.<br>When Margita saw her dress swaddling the bloody, mucus-covered bundle of baby, she started to protest.<br>"Quivera, my . . . Oh," she gulped, then turned to the others and shrugged.<br>"Oh well. It was on sale. Loehmann's." Then she brightened, as the train of her thought moved her from disaster to optimism, a trip she took at least twenty times a day, every degree of which registered on her face. This was what Catorza had < alwwwways admired most in her.<br>Now Margita brightened further and said, "Hey, it's luck, isn't it. It'll be my lucky dress from now on. I'll save it for her. She can wear it hersself, in sixteen years." The women had crowded aroound the bed. Their warm, damp skin stuck to each other. The smell of blood and salt and sweetness, acrid and new, the sounds of their clucking and cooing, their mouths opening and closing like birds, stirred in each of them the sensation of themselves being born.<br>Catorza, looking down at Novena swaddled in blue, felt a great swell inside her, like the ocean's wave. It rolled in, heavy and wet, built to a gentle crest, then crashed home. As it receded, she knew herself to be different; it was her first moment of motherhood. She became fixed on a picture of Novena at sixteen years, ripe and seductive as she herself had been. Fingering the silk, she looked up and said, "Twenty-one years. And not a minute before." Novena felt her own small wave cresting and relaxing. She took in the claw-footed sofa, the pile of dresses, the corset of Annaluna, the echoes of the trio's songs, the notes of which were lingering in the corners of the room like cobwebs, and she felt her mother's warm fingers through the blue silk. She looked up at them all and smiled at how familiar it seemed.<br><br> Drop an egg into boiling water and the shell will often crack, releasing its albumen in lacy white streams. The same thing happens to a man's heart when he becomes a father: it develops tiny fissures that release the tendrils that tie him to his children. Some men's hearts, though, will stay intact and contained, the threads of protein becoming choked and tangled up in themselves. The children of those fathers usually grow up with similar hearts. They grow up loving solitude with a fierceness that even the best mothers can't alter.<br>Novena's father, Nick, wasn't a bad man, just a bad father, although like all bad fathers he would never have believed this. And like many bad fathers, he had a multitude of children. Long before he met Catorza, he had married young and his wife had borne him four children in rapid succession, so quickly that by the time he was in his mid-twenties he was already stunned by life. His children confused him, made noises he couldn't understand and demands he couldn't fathom. He wasn't sure what they wanted, but it seemed to be everything. Worse, they showed no signs of giving him anything in return.<br>"What about me?" he'd yell through the house. "When is it my turn?" and the children would grow still. Even in their baby brains, they knew that to hear these questions from a parent doomed them to become people who would forever try too hard to please.<br>The thought that he'd been cheated, that he was going to end up empty-handed, gnawed at Nick until one day he stopped going home. He sent money when he could, which wasn't often. He was a musician, which suited him in many ways, but was hardly lucrative enough to support a family.<br>He met Catorza not long after he'd left, one night when she came to see Jakarta and her trio sing at a small downtown club. Nick was sitting in on piano and saw her sitting at a small table watching him. She liked his big hands; he liked the fact she could sit so calmly at a table by herself. There was a stillness about her that gave him a feeling like homesickness. All he wanted, he told himself, was what was coming to him. Nothing more than what he was entitled to. And Catorza took that shape for him, sitting there calmly in the dark club, watching him. Here was someone who would pay attention to him for a change.<br>Which she did, for a while. Until the ironic and cynical gods that cursed Nick with fecundity found him again. By the time Novena arrived, he was gone, nothing more than one of the ghosts inhabiting the apartment.<br>With a new baby, Catorza needed work she could do from home, and began gathering up jobs and taking them in as if they were stray pets. She started typing, mostly immigration documents for a lawyer who had opened a storefront office in the building to capitalize on the hundreds of Vietnamese who were moving into the neighborhood. She did their taxes and helped them improve their rough English so they could start their businesses, teaching them useful phrases like "Thank you, come again" and "Cash or charge?" and, for the women opening nail salons all across the city, "Go pick a color." They stopped going to the lawyer and began coming to her. She started balancing their books, and straightening out their immigration problems, and advising them on the best way to deal with officials. They thought there was nothing she couldn't fix, and she had to convince them to take their sick children and broken appliances elsewhere. They kept coming, some paying her in cash, some with steaming pots of fragrant dishes or boxes of tea, and some with bright bolts of cloth, which she hung in panels around Novena's crib. Novena would lie for hours, watching the play of breeze and light through them.<br>One day, Xa Ngum, a neighborhood elder, showed up with a daunting stack of letters from the IRS that needed deciphering, and a basket of shirts that needed mending and ironing. Catorza tried to say no to the shirts, but he pretended not to understand and left the basket behind, bowing to her as he went out the door.<br>She let them sit for a few nights, but the fact was, she found ironing soothing. So one night she took out her iron and lifted a shirt from the basket. The cloth was ancient and beautiful, and it seemed alive under her fingers. As she pressed the hot iron to the shirts, their fragrant breaths were exhaled into the clouds of steam which wrapped around her. With each shirt she pressed, the breaths of the cloth grew stronger, until it seemed as if the shirts were whispering to her. As she mended and pressed, the shirts told her of Xa Ngum's work in the hot wet government offices of the capital, of his escape from invaders through moist rice fields and slow brown rivers. With the next shirt, she saw a green so translucent it nearly blinded her. A green shattering into a thousand greens, the green of parrot, snakes, emeralds, of melon, jade, and new grass. By the time the last shirt was pressed and folded, she sat down, feeling a little drunk.<br>Xa Ngum showed up a few days later and was delighted with the neat stacks of shirts, which Catorza had bundled and tied with ribbon, like packets of love letters. He began showing up every Wednesday with new piles of shirts. Since he still wore the drab anonymous clothes of the city, she wondered what he did with the shirts, but what did it matter? He paid her well.<br>Xa Ngum loved Catorza's apartment, especially when the ghosts of its past life wafted through the rooms like sleepwalkers. Mostly, he loved sitting watching her work, a sight he found both soothing and exciting. He would hold Novena in his lap, a cup of green tea by his side, and they would fall asleep to the steady ticking of the sewing machine; the whooshing blast of steam from the iron mingling with the fragrant fumes of the tea would lull them into dreams of warmth and industry.<br>One night Xa Ngum didn't go home. Catorza welcomed the company of someone in her bed, where he became a young man, by turns ardent and giggling. She began to count on their Wednesday nights.<br>Months of pleasure and ironing passed. Then, two Wednesdays went by with no Xa Ngum. Catorza felt shy about calling him. She sat with the last batch of his shirts and unwrapped the bundle, inhaling the shirts, hoping to find an answer. But the cloth was silent, having expelled all its secrets under the press of the iron.<br>The next morning, Xang, one of the neighborhood women, showed up with a note from Ngum, which she offered to translate in exchange for Catorza typing up a stack of liquor permit documents. She insisted the typing be done first. Catorza, not expecting good news, typed slowly. Then she gathered Novena on her lap and Xang opened the letter.<br>"'Beautiful iron woman,'" she read. "'I must go for a while and be with my family.'" Xang was an old friend of Ngum's and was jealous of Catorza and scandalized by their carrying on. She interrupted her reading to tell her, "His family still in Vietnam. His wife was very beautiful. She's dead now." Xang continued to read. "'My son and nephew have been tempted by evil to join the army here, which has returned to killing. This is the army that destroyed us a long time ago. My sister mourns. My family is a field of dry grass that is burning under a too hot sun. I must put out the flames. I ask Xang to take this immediately to you'"-here Xang blushed, since she had deliberately waited two weeks before taking it to Catorza-"'to let you know I will come back one day.'" Catorza knew he wouldn't return. As she stroked Novena's hair, she suddenly felt queasy. Something moved in the pit of her stomach like a snake.<br>Xang grabbed her chin suddenly and looked into her eyes for a long moment.<br>"You be careful," she said sternly.<br>Catorza tipped her face up in a question.<br>"You have something coming," she told Catorza, and quickly gathering up her liquor permits, went out the door.<br>Ngum, that silly old fool, Xang thought, going down the stairs. She wouldn't tell him. Let him find out for himself.<br><br>And so nearly four years after Novena's birth, Catorza was pregnant again. When her time came, she went to the hospital to deliver. Margita, who couldn't get away, sent her a new dress, in what she hoped would become a tradition of stylish receiving blankets. It arrived in a big box from one of the better department stores, swaddled in great mounds of tissue paper. Also in the box were matching shoes and a purse, both in a gay floral print. Their actual purpose in the birthing process Margita hadn't quite thought through, but they matched the dress so perfectly she couldn't resist.<br>Annaluna didn't trust shoes. In fact, she thought they had the capacity for making their own decisions to conspire against us, and believed they were rendered powerless only if they were on feet or corralled in closets. Her rules were simple: "Never leave them in hallways; there they can congregate and plot amongst themselves. Never leave them outside, unaccompanied, for they can wander where you don't want them to be. If you see two shoes lying together, imagine the worst." If she found a shoe in the middle of the sidewalk, which in the city is a not uncommon occurrence, she would bring it home and bury it. Usually they were sneakers, which she considered containers of misfortune rather than instruments of determined evil, unless a pair of them were tied and hanging off a telephone wire, a clear warning that the street had been hexed and was to be avoided. Occasionally, though, she would come home muttering darkly, holding a man's smashed oxford or a woman's bruised high heel, which she had fished out of a gutter amid broken glass and old newspaper. T...
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Book Description Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2000. Hardcover. Condition: New. Seller Inventory # DADAX039583810X