Processing Grief in Helene Dunbar’s Prelude for Lost Souls

Dec, Russ, and Annie are all alone. Well, not totally alone, but close enough. Dec’s parents were killed a few years back in a tragic accident. Now he’s being raised by his older sister, avoiding his younger sister, and confiding his secrets in the ghost boy who haunts his house. His best friend is Russ, although that relationship has been strained lately. Russ’ mother walked out on him and his father when Russ’ abilities to commune with spirits proved to be one straw too many. Now his father works himself to the bone and they barely see each other, passing like ships in the night. Annie left her home in Russia as a child to become a famous classical pianist under the tutelage of an eccentric mentor. His death—and his obsession with an unfinished piano piece—throws the three teens together.

After an unexpected detour on the way to her tutor’s funeral, Annie ends up in the strange little town of St. Hilaire. Everyone in the town are mediums, and every summer tourists come from all around to speak to their loved ones long since passed one last time. Now the season is over and hard times are coming. The Guild, the local officials who rule the town, are cracking down on infractions and passing impossibly strict new rules. Dec doesn’t care; all he wants is to get out of town no matter what. Unfortunately, his plans are waylaid by the arrival of Annie, several confrontations with an angry boy who wants to summon his dead brother’s ghost, and the spirit of another dead boy who thinks Annie is the key to everything. St. Hilaire is full of family secrets and churning conspiracies, and only Dec, Russ, and Annie can drag the darkness into the light.

Prelude for Lost Souls is a quiet story full of small-town intrigue, intimate relationships, and personal grief. It has the feel of a gothic story and the hook of a haunted house, but Helene Dunbar uses these as a way to explore the way trauma and loss break and reshape our lives. Though they want to hide from their pasts, ignore their presents, and plan for their futures, heartbreak works on its own schedule. Until they process their grief, they can never move on.

Dec miraculously survived the same accident that took his parents’ lives. Russ’ mother abandoned him and his father works long hours to afford the high cost of living in St. Hilaire. Annie’s parents passed her off onto her piano tutor, seeing her music as a paycheck rather than a passion, then her tutor took his life. Each of the three main characters have lost their parents, some literally while others metaphorically. And each teen has found their own ways of processing that grief. Dec plans to escape his hometown before it gets its claws into him for good. Russ will do whatever it takes to get a position of power and security in the town Guild. Annie skips her mentor’s funeral to finish the task he left uncompleted: find the ending of the song he was obsessed with.

Make no mistake. Prelude for Lost Souls is beautifully written. Dunbar is exceptionally skilled at evoking the feel of a sleepy, misty New England town sunk deep into fall. Regardless of the characters, I thoroughly enjoyed the experience of reading this novel. It’s painfully evocative in the best way. All gothic mystery that on another continent and in another era would include brooding heroes gazing out over windswept moors.

However, I found the general lack of diversity pretty frustrating. There are two queer characters, but otherwise everyone is coded as straight, cisgender, able-bodied, neurotypical, and thin. I know a cast like that is common in young adult fiction (and in all fiction, frankly), but shouldn’t we be aiming higher? Diversifying out the cast would’ve brought more complexity to the characters’ backstories and added some much needed dimension to a rather straightforward tale.

In fact, on the whole all the characters fell sort of flat. One character has a personality that never moves beyond “gruff.” Another remains steadfast in “sarcastic yet flirty.” Neither develop beyond those two points. Meanwhile the Guild, the supposedly all-controlling local government that threatens the safety and livelihood of the main characters, remain largely undefined and nebulous. We’re meant to be afraid of them, but we never see any real reason why we should. A lot of tell, not enough show. Just enough to lure you in but not enough to feel deeply invested in their various romances, unrequited attractions, and sinister schemes. As lovely as the story was, I wish the characters lived up to the high bar set by the worldbuilding.

Despite its limitations, Prelude for Lost Souls is a charming novel perfect for a lazy weekend. It’s moody and melodramatic, the kind of story that makes you think of falling leaves and cozy sweaters and waning friendships and new lovers and finally learning to let go.

Prelude for Lost Souls is available from Sourcebooks Fire.

Alex Brown is a teen services librarian by day, local historian by night, author and writer by passion, and an ace/aro Black woman all the time. Keep up with her on Twitter and Insta, or follow along with her reading adventures on her blog.

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