The Ghost Notebooks
I wasn't sure how I would feel about this book. I am a lover of the supernatural, but when I read the sleeve of this book it peaked my interest enough that I delved in. I expected it to be a bit more like "The Haunting of Hill House", but what I found was a story about descending into deep grief and madness after a traumatic loss. They always say that you shouldn't judge a book by its cover, but unfortunately that's exactly what I did. The cover doesn't nearly touch upon the theme of haunting and madness. But don't let that fool you! The author's writing is engaging and flows so nicely that it can enthrall its reader over and over again.
Now as I said before I love supernatural things, books, movies, the TV show, I love it all, but this focuses more on the living and less on the ghosts in the title. We do however get a creepy historic house as our setting, but here is where I felt it was lack a bit of its theme. The novel is narrated by Nick, a failed musician just getting by in New York City with his girlfriend Hannah. Though she recently lost her job, she believes she found an amazing alternative in managing a historical house in upstate New York. The home belonged to Edmund Wright, a 19th century writer with a few eccentric hobbies, such as creating encyclopedias of all possible human sensations. He also has a very tragic past with the loss of his young son. Despite the horrid past, the house is idyllic and quaint, giving Hannah and Nick time to explore lost pastimes they loved and tour school children around the house. But when Hannah is found dead by a near by river bank, Nick has a hard time processing all the related information: Hannah's previous history with mental illness, the dark stories that surround the previous caretakers, and the ghost stories that surrounded Edmund Wright.
I started reading this novel with high hopes. The blurb makes it sound like something that will keep you on the edge of you seat, but I found that wasn't exactly the case. The beginning is a very long, drawn out set up where Dolnick delivers too many details on the mundane daily lives of Nick and Hannah's lives. The entire first section is devoted to this, which leads up to Hannah's disappearance. There were points where I wanted to skim past, but the writing was overall beautiful even though the subject matter was boring. Wright's writing seemed to serve no purpose, and though difficult to get through the stream of consciousness writings are vital to read for part three of the novel.
There are many plot points that just don't seem to fit in the story. Hannah's parents being wildly over protective for a woman in her 20's, Nick later commits a crime that is totally out of character, and it does seem far fetched that a school would bring their students to the house given the proposed classroom activities. There is also a lacking the actual "haunting" of the house, an absence of any frightening vibes. Its strength is in its tale of a young man's grief, capturing the mental blind alleys that sends us down a rabbit hole of feeling that every house is a haunted house, buy though Dolnick is a strong writer playing with many forms throughout the novel, the final feeling is of a tale that falls short of it's ambitions.
Dolnick's handling of mental illness is amazing. There is a harsh contrast between Hannah's mostly invisible illness against Nick's large and quick spiral into grief. The suffering of both characters is heartbreaking and at times it makes you question what would have been different if Hannah had been more open and honest with her soon to be husband. It wasn't until about the last third of the book that things started to pick up and actually hold my interest. The last hundred pages were fast and thrilling. The ending was a relief after so much buildup. It was a mystery ending in the sense that we don't know what happens to Nick, but it also makes perfect sense that we would be left in the dark.
Overall, the pacing was more clunky than creepy, and I would probably give the book 3 stars. It wasn't my favorite, but Dolnick's writing makes it such a nice look into mental illness that we don't often see. The story is compelling, and there are many people who will still be able to connect with the narrative.