Review copy from NetGalley
I'm not sure what compelled me to want to read this novel, since the very thought of losing a child is enough to make me sick, but I think it was the possible "ghost" element that spurred my interest.
I was just reading last night (in the current issue of Psychology Today) that 32% of Americans believe that spirits of the dead can return, 37% believe in haunted houses, and 16% aren't sure. They also mentioned the fact that bereavement increases the chance of a visit from beyond. This novel is rooted in that desire to believe that we can communicate with our deceased loved one. In Coake's novel, father Mark Fife is approached by a strange woman who happens to live in his former home, and told that the ghost of his son is there. His son was only 7 years old when he passed away in an unfortunate accident in the home, while under his father's watch. The tragedy eventually destroyed his marriage to his beloved wife, Chloe, who has not been emotionally well ever since. Mark is currently engaged to another woman and planning his new life, when he meets this woman who claims to have the spirit of his son in her home.
This book is really about Mark, and his efforts to deal with the possibility of the "return" of his son. Mark has issues with alcohol, and, in my opinion, a lot of relationship problems. His mother passed away from cancer a few years before, and his father, Sam, is a university professor who seems to care deeply for his son. However, his speech about what happens to us after we die really annoyed me. In fact, all these characters kind of annoyed me. Allison, Mark's fiance, seems to be very immature and needy, even though it is clear that is not how the author intends her to be. Chloe, the ex-wife, is wacko. Mark's best friend and confidante Louis also seems immature and possibly alcoholic. It is a novel full of dysfunction. Even the family that lives in his former home is clearly dysfunctional. There just didn't seem to be anyone to relate to here.
Sam tells Mark that "The only happy death I can imagine is one that severs me entirely from this life. Annihilates me." He seems to think that if there is a heaven, everyone is waiting there miserably, longing for what they've left behind and missing everyone: "...it is very difficult for me to imagine that we die, only to go to a place that allows us to remember our lives." This view of what heaven or an afterlife or what a soul might do when separated from its body is so negative and hopeless, it really annoyed me that there was not a single character with a positive view of a happy paradise, of God, of spirit filled joy. I am not a "Jesus freak" (as Louis says in the book). I believe in God, and in Jesus Christ. But I have many atheist/non-believer friends who I respect and even understand. However, this man's world view is apparently one of extreme pessimism, where a book about the mere possibility of an afterlife, a heaven, a God, is so unthinkable, he can't even properly present that view in a book about that very subject. The ones that do believe are kooks or nuts, irrational or money hungry. I felt this was an unfair. It made the whole tone of the book very hopeless.
This story is supposed to be one of love and loss. Mark has lost his son, his wife, basically his life, but is trying to regain it, with his impending marriage to Allison. But he only has himself to blame for the mess he makes of things after the "ghost" enters the picture. He loses his footing and flies off the handle every time a new"problem" is presented. He tries to solve these problems himself and turns to alcohol and the other highly dysfunctional people in his life to deal with these issues. He never seems to have even a glimmer of hope in being proactive enough to help himself. It is annoying, he is too self indulgent and pitying to even try to feel sorry for him. The loss of his son is tragic, but it seems the only way he can view his son's death is via his guilty part in it.
I didn't enjoy reading this novel. It became a chore. The main character was so unlikable, and so closed off to actually changing, I couldn't imagine possibly knowing him or being around him. There were a few times I was engaged, but then another main character (Sam, Chloe, etc) would do something nuts, and he'd lose me again. The writing was not bad, but this novel could have been so much more. A third of the book could have been replaced with more serious discussions of belief, soul and spirit, and more importantly, how one finally learns to cope with the death of a beloved child. But it never happened. Too bad.