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Haunted and haunting

Cover of Shutter
A review of Shutter by Ramona Emerson

It’s a grisly scene that police photographer Rita Todacheene is called to late one night outside of Albuquerque. Bits of the woman’s body are strewn over the interstate, the victim of an apparent suicide from an overpass. But the voice of a furious Erma—whose remains Rita is so diligently documenting—insists it was murder, and Erma won’t stop haunting Rita until she gets vengeance. But Rita’s secret—her ability to see and speak to the dead—is a terrible secret she can neither escape nor even acknowledge to anyone living, a curse that makes her taboo in her Diné (Navajo) community. But the injustice of Erma’s death and the very real possibility that the criminals could now be after her turns the photographer into a reluctant sleuth at the center of Ramona Emerson’s debut Shutter.

Photography has always been Rita’s salvation, growing up on the reservation in the rugged New Mexico countryside. Raised by strong-willed women, Rita’s gift of capturing a moment on film offered a chance at art school, and maybe a career as an artist. But once the ghosts only she could see started closing in, sabotaging her personal life and driving her from the support she craved at home, Rita retreats into the only photography job she can get with the Albuquerque PD. Erma’s ghost is hardly the only one who has dogged her, but when Rita starts noticing troubling evidence at other crime scenes and a general disinterest in Erma’s death, she starts digging for herself. What she uncovers leads to tangles with some very powerful and very ruthless individuals who may be beyond the reach of even the law, and think nothing of turning Rita into a ghost herself. With her sources known only to herself and very few people willing to even believe her suspicions, Rita has to rely only on her own wits.

Like her protagonist, Ramona Emerson grew up Diné in New Mexico, and now makes her living as a writer and filmmaker. It’s likely that eye for visuals that gives Shutter its special appeal. Chapters following the present-day Rita are interspersed with flashbacks to Rita’s life growing up, centered around the cameras she used at the time. These past episodes are the strongest, as Emerson captures the beauty and challenges of the New Mexico countryside and its people defined—perhaps even haunted by—its history. The supernatural elements add the right amount of intriguing twist to the story without devolving into hokeyness. Characterization sometimes feel flat—the villains in the story seem a little too easily dismissed as evil—and a bit of nuance to their stories comes a bit late. But if Shutter betrays its author’s first foray into crime fiction, the portraits of Rita, her family and the community that surrounds them, as well as the lovely writing in the flashback portions make it worthy of its inclusion on this year’s National Book Award longlist. 

Dec 1, 2022