Mark Fife was nearly crippled by the accidental death of his young son Brendan years ago. His marriage to college sweetheart Chloe disintegrated painfully and he almost drank himself to death so weighted down by grief. Seven years on, he is still accepting the loss of his son, the complete wrenching finality of Brendan’s death, but he is living with a patient, good woman, Allie, whom he has decided to marry, tentatively ready to start a new chapter in his life. But just as he starts to move on, a woman named Connie Pelham comes to him and tells him that Brendan’s ghost is haunting Mark and Chloe’s old house. Mark doesn’t believe in ghosts but he can’t bring himself to discount her story, worried that his denial of the existence of this one ghost is a refutation of his beloved son. He keeps most of the situation from Allie and is reluctant to share it with ex-wife Chloe either. He is completely conflicted about his life, uncertain whether to look to the past or leave it behind. He cannot see a way in which to keep both parts of his life connected, certain that it must be one or the other, convinced that he can be the old Mark Fife, husband of Chloe and father of Brendan or the new Mark Fife, fiancé of Allie. He does not understand how to be just one Mark Fife.
As Mark gets swept up in the possibility of Brendan’s spirit still inhabiting their old house, he does not think to include Allie in this life, hewing back to Chloe despite the terrible hurt she inflicted on him after they lost Brendan and naturally turning to her as not only the love of his life but also as Brendan’s mother. Mark must consider whether he believes Connie and her young son about their sightings and what it would mean if they are right about Brendan’s presence. Blindsided by the fact that he is suddenly not so certain about anything in his life anymore, not his engagement to Allie, not his former certainty that ghosts don’t exist, not his divorce from Chloe, not anything really, Mark tries to move forward, making decision after poor decision, hurting almost everyone around him including himself as he grapples with his feelings, desires, and the ultimate truth.
On the surface a novel about the supernatural, this is really a suspenseful look at faith, love, and loss and the ways in which these govern so much of our lives and decisions. The main characters, Mark, Chloe, and Allie are all complex, conflicted, and confused, grappling with this tragedy that will forever define who they are and how they go on. Although wallowing in grief, being sucked backwards by the possibility of his son’s ghost, and not coping well at all, Mark is a very sympathetic character. Watching him want desperately to believe in Brendan’s continued existence is absolutely heartbreaking despite the careless and selfish ways in which he ignores and crushes Allie in his overwhelming desire to find his lost son. Chloe and Allie are less sympathetic but the novel is far more centered on Mark and his internal struggles, only focusing tightly on the women as they touch his life and emotions.
Losing a child is every parents’ nightmare and Coake captures a depth of emotion here that is absolutely staggering. The plot tension ratchets up as the novel progresses and Mark’s skepticism waxes and wanes. And the reader is as undecided about the truth of Brendan’s ghost as Mark himself is as the narrative progresses. The continued, lifelong grief in the aftermath of Brendan’s death and the struggle to still make a happy life are carefully limned and authentic. This well-written and thoughtful novel is gripping and multi-faceted and the reader will clutch at his or her throat as each intense layer peels back in Mark’s quest for peace, acceptance, and understanding.
Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of the book for review.