What causes us to believe one person but not another? When someone has convinced us that great horrors exist, can our opinions be altered?

What causes us to believe one person but not another? When someone has convinced us that great horrors exist, can our opinions be altered? How do we establish the truth for ourselves, and how do our truths affect others? These are questions that linger from Arthur Philips’ latest novel, Angelica.

Angelica is set in Victorian England where the husband reigned as the master over his wife and children. Here the tale of a domestic struggle is colored by psychological histories so intense they manifest a ghost. The exact nature of that ghost is for the reader to decide.

Told from the four different viewpoints of the people involved, Angelica provides interesting insights into human nature and shows the power of individual perspective in framing the elusive concept of truth. Phillips effectively demonstrates how the same factual elements can be distorted by factors such as class, personal history and psychological state of mind. Philips weaves four stories using the same basic facts to concoct vastly different truths. In the end, the power of fear over imagination and its ultimate consequences proves more dangerous than any supernatural being.

Constance Barton is terrorized by a ghost, but she dares not tell her husband, the British/Italian scientist and war hero Joseph Barton. She believes Joseph to be mean and cruel, unable to understand the intuitive perceptions of the feminine mind. After six years of marriage, Constance has had three miscarriages. Finally, she has borne a child, Angelica. Having been warned that another pregnancy would be fatal, Constance now lives in fear that her husband will demand her wifely affections. This fear has grown to such an extent that Constance perceives any physical interaction with her husband as nothing less than a threat against her life.

Because Constance and Angelica’s health have been so delicate, Angelica has slept in her parents’ bedroom ever since she was born. Tiring of this arrangement after four years, Joseph Barton has ordered that Angelica be moved to her own room. Constance rails against this new arrangement, falsely claiming that Angelica is afraid to be by herself. In fact, Angelica is thrilled. One suspects that Constance actually fears being forced to perform her wifely duties now that the child is out of their bedroom.

Constance begins to believe that there is a growing evil in her husband. He seems angry and aggressive with his “hot Italian blood.” She is afraid he will “charge hungrily forward.” Further complicating their marital relationship is the fact that in marrying Constance, Joseph has married below his station. Where Joseph is a scientist and a war hero, Constance had been a mere stationer’s girl.

Unusual things begin to happen. Angelica feels her mother’s pain whenever Constance is in any way intimate with Joseph. As the situation escalates, the house servant, Nora, introduces Constance to Mrs. Montague, a former actress turned spiritualist. Mrs. Montague is the first and only person with whom Constance has been able to share her fears. Having heard Constance’s account of her haunting, Mrs. Montague comes to her own conclusions about what is truly happening in the house. The two women agree on one thing: the evil is associated with Joseph.

Phillips brilliantly advances his story by turning it in a new direction and recounting its events through the viewpoint of the spiritualist, Mrs. Montague. The story changes direction again giving Joseph Barton’s perspective, precisely when the reader hates him most. Finally, Angelica gives her version of the story. In each case, the facts remain unchanged. The reader’s conclusions, however, are continually modified as the story is retold in different ways. As each character forms stronger conclusions, the haunting worsens and the stakes are increased.

Angelica is an engaging and highly ambitious endeavor. Philips holds a captive audience up to the point where he allows the adult Angelica to tell her version of the story. While the reader awaits her perspective, we never learn why Angelica is telling this story. Is she in therapy? If so, why? Whom does she think she is addressing when she directly addresses the reader? The reader’s sympathies for Angelica have been formed for Angelica as a child. When Angelica speaks for herself as an adult, she loses her charm and is abrasive. Her statement holds an unfortunate amount of truth when, in the end, Angelica says, “I am miserable and you are bored. I weep and you consult your watch.” Overall, however, Angelica is a masterful tale, well crafted and superbly presented.

Angelica is Arthur Phillips’ third novel. His first novel, Prague, won the Los Angeles Times/Art Seidenbaum Award for best first novel. His second novel, The Egyptologist, was a national and an international best seller.

Phillips will be in Portland on Tuesday, May 8 at 7 p.m. at Borders Books on Southwest Third Avenue.