Is there life after death? Dr. Stafford Betty's fifth novel, "The Imprisoned Splendor," responds to one of the most contentious and contemplated questions in the history of human speculation with a resounding "Yes!"

Part adventure story and part morality tale, the novel is the story of Professor Kiran Kulkarni, an Indian atheist who quickly discovers that there is much more to death than mere oblivion. Kiran comes to dwell in the astral realm of Eidos, a place where "everything could be created by one's imagination and will."

After tiring of exploring the wonders of Eidos, Kiran chooses to undergo Judgment, where he must relive his cruel treatment of the three most important women in his life from their points of view. He emerges from the ordeal a changed man, one fully equipped to face the horrors of the Shadowlands and rescue his old lover, Shalini, the only one of the three women to whom he can still make amends and heal their broken relationship.

Overall, the book is a unique and intriguing read. Though its lofty subject matter may seem intimidating, its slender size and relatively short chapters make it quite approachable. The style is vivid, rich in detail, and lightly spiced with humor.

Despite its readability, intelligent prose and the protagonist's unique journey, "The Imprisoned Splendor" is not for everyone. Its slower pacing and emphasis on internal rather than external conflict give it a more literary feel than the average reader is arguably used to. A tendency to favor contemplative narrative over dialogue and action sequences causes the middle to drag somewhat, though I personally found the prose relating Shalini's tragic final days poignant enough to forgive a scarcity of dialogue and action. Some people may dislike the fact that its spiritual themes are a bit unsubtle, especially in the final pages -- though the karma of the ending is simply poetic justice at its finest. (You'll have to read to see what I mean!)

The factor that will likely dictate whether readers enjoy the novel is its highly unorthodox view of the afterlife. There are no pearly gates or fiery pits here. The astral realms are depicted as a synthesis of both Eastern and Western religious traditions, and rebirth is accepted as a fact rather than a hotly debated issue.

Though I identify as a Christian, I found the idea of a multi-form afterlife that is more similar to our "first" lives rather than a state of eternal rest or torment intriguing. Who wouldn't want to fly around or transform into a mermaid for a few hours? Yet I can also understand how those who firmly believe in the traditional views of the afterlife may be tempted to condemn the novel as a load of misinformed nonsense.

However, this unusual vision of the afterlife is not merely the product of Dr. Betty's overactive imagination. As well as being a professor of philosophy and religious studies at Cal State Bakersfield, Dr. Betty is also a leading researcher and scholar on the afterlife. The vast wealth of information he has collected throughout a life dedicated to metaphysical studies, and especially his earlier work "The Afterlife Unveiled," give "The Imprisoned Splendor" its unique spiritual flavor.

As with any exotic dish, whether or not the novel fits a reader's particular taste is something only that reader can determine. But, in the spirit of the many parents who encourage their kids to at least taste a new dish before deciding they don't like it, I invite people to open their minds and take a chance on this unique spiritual adventure.

Whether you agree or disagree with the novel's interpretations of the afterlife, the divine and the idea of rebirth, its major themes -- never stop seeking new truths, make the effort to treat people as ends rather than means, and the idea that "only love works in the long run" -- make this book an entertaining, challenging, and thought-provoking read.

Rebekah Kearn graduated summa cum laude from Cal State Bakersfield with a B.A. in English. She was also named the Outstanding Graduate of both the university's English department and its School of Arts and Humanities.

Book signing

What: Stafford Betty will sign copies of "The Imprisoned Splendor"

When: 2 to 3 p.m. Dec. 4

Where: Russo's Books, 9000 Ming Ave.

Information: 665-4686