Spiritual struggle

"The Uncommitted" is an engrossing debut novel by Michael Popke | The Isthmus

“The Uncommitted” is an engrossing debut novel

by Michael Popke | The Isthmus

Catholicism plays a central role in the debut novel from Madison author Margaret Goss, but readers need not share her beliefs in order to relate to The Uncommitted — a surprisingly dark tale of spiritual struggle.

Published by Three Towers Press in Milwaukee, this story set in St. Paul, Minn., contains references to such Madison institutions as UW Children’s Hospital (now American Family Children’s Hospital) and Culver’s, and revolves around Josephine Reilly, a 35-year-old mother of three who can communicate with the dead via dreams, visions and telepathy. While experimenting with what she initially considers a “gift,” she unlocks an invisible evil that threatens her family and drives her to the brink of self-destruction.

Beginning at about the halfway point, diligent readers will be able to put together some of the pieces and anticipate the book’s conclusion, but they should keep reading. An epic final scene set in a desolate Arizona cemetery attempts to bring closure; then Goss adds a provocative twist in the epilogue.

The book’s title references the souls in Dante’s Inferno that chose to live without conviction, faith, principle or belief, wandering aimlessly in eternity. Goss’ Catholic Sicilian mother possessed a deep devotion to saints, novenas and the rosary, and that religious upbringing no doubt played a role in the author’s traditional depiction of marriage. Josephine is devoted to her husband, Declan, but guilt-ridden by her desire to deny his will and pursue her psychic powers in secret. Declan, meanwhile, is the sturdy provider, seemingly more devoted to his job than to his wife.

Despite the clichés, Goss boldly blurs the spiritual, the secular and the supernatural — resulting in a story that, depending on how deep your faith goes, seems eerily real. References to Christ’s crucifixion and stigmata may lose some readers, but if they keep reading, the imagery Goss uses to depict her vision of the afterlife will stick with them.

Goss is a mother of three who works as a substitute nurse in the Madison Metropolitan School District. Her nursing know-how came in handy for the story she tells here, but Goss says she hopes to one day make a living as a writer.

She’s off to good start with The Uncommitted.