The Ghost Notebooks
by Ben Dolnick
Published 2018 by Pantheon
$25.95 hardcover ISBN 978-1101871096
By Noah Sanders
Grief is an unpredictable thing. In the throes of sadness—over death, divorce, the end of anything really—we are, as humans, quite capable of anything. Sure, we’ve tried to place the abstract concept of grief within structured boundaries, to explain it in concrete forms (waves, steps, stages) but in truth, grief is an unwieldy force with no real direction or shape. It is an unquantifiable mass that overtakes us; there is no rulebook and there is no way to adequately describe it or cope with it. Grief will do with us what it will, it is only our need to cling to the our most basic tenets of being human that allows us to move forward. Ben Dolnick’s The Ghost Notebooks is about loss, about the way grief haunts us, and, at its core, about what we become and what we do, when we let grief run unchecked. It is, to a certain degree, a ghost story and a mystery, but these are just window dressings to Dolnick’s themes of what we are capable of in the midst of the grieving process.
There is a surfeit of books these days—millennial ghost stories you might call them—about hipsters moving to the country to try and escape the crushing responsibilities of adulthood, of leaving one place in hopes of finding solace from the inevitable crush of growing up, but instead finding their problems, like a malevolent spirit, have tagged along. In The Ghost Notebooks, Nick Beron—an assistant music editor—and his fiance, Hannah Rampe—a curator of eccentric museums—are in the grey place near the end of a relationship when things really could shake out either way. On a whim, Rachel—mental illness at the edge of her emotional periphery—agrees to become the caretaker of The Wright Historic House, the deceased author Edward Wright’s former residence in the distant, upstate New York town of Hibernia. Things go well for a bit, the relationship straightens out, the couple remembers what they love about each other and enjoy the quiet, solitude of small town living. Rachel begins to hear voices, stops eating and sleeping, spends long hours scribbling in her journals obsessing over the supernatural rumors that swirl about the place. And then she disappears and Nick, right or wrong, becomes entirely unglued.
Told through Nick’s perspective, the reader is firmly situated in the darkest corners of his grieving process. This is not a low-key type of grief, this is a fully consuming, physical and mental grief. “I remember feeling flayed inside,” Nick says, “like every vein in my body had been scraped with a blade.” Devoured by sadness, Nick obsesses over the smallest details of Hannah’s disappearance, stepping further and further over the line, until he’s escaping from mental hospitals, gently assaulting the elderly in his attempt to understand, to free himself from the overwhelming cloud of sadness Hannah’s disappearance has cast over him. Nick is, in the most extreme way, just processing his grief—riding the waves, taking the steps, moving through the stages—he’s just doing so outside of imposed idea of grieving.
The mystery of The Wright Historic House and Hannah’s disappearance are at the heart of the book, but Dolnick sort of casts them away at some point, turning his focus towards Nick’s grief and the haunting affect it has on him. It shackles the book a bit, placing it within the confines of a ghost story, because it leaves the reader always thinking about what the solve to the mystery might be. And when the author veers towards his more emotionally centered conclusion, the book seems to stagnate, but only because what the reader thought they were getting is suddenly wrenched off the table. Sure, Dolnick returns to the more ghostly themes in the end of the book, but at this point they’ve become superfluous—we no longer care about Edward Wright, or even what about Wright drove Hannah to madness, because Nick’s struggle to escape his grief is so much more interesting.
Dolnick is at his best in The Ghost Notebooks when the more supernatural themes become reflective of the characters. Because, yes, Hannah is haunted before she disappears and Nick is haunted afterwards, but it has nothing to do with ghosts. They’re haunted by their emotions, as we all are, to the point that both of them start to fade, so hounded by their own emotional states they become ghost-like themselves. Nick is haunted not by the specter of Edward Wright or its effects on his missing girlfriend, he’s haunted, obsessed even, by the memories of his lost relationship. Everything in his life—buildings, objects, relationships—become entangled in the ghostly limbs of his grief.