The Ghost Notebooks, by Ben Dolnick

Trigger warning for suicide.

In upstate New York is the home of an obscure American philosopher who went off the deep end into spiritualism—a fact that some of the board members of the museum established at that home have tried to suppress. As if to stymie their efforts, the Edmund Wright House has been the site of strange disappearances and mental breakdowns. Even more strangely, The Ghost Notebooks, by Ben Dolnick, begins on a hopeful note as a newly engaged couple takes up residence at the house so that Hannah Rampe can become a live-in curator.

Nicholas Beron and Hannah Rampe have been together for several years by the time we meet them. They have their ups and downs, like any couple, but their relationship is complicated by Hannah’s mental health history. Their downs get a little lower than most. After a small crisis, Nick proposes, Hannah accepts, and they head for upstate New York for Hannah’s new job.

Things go well for a little while, but the house’s history as a spiritualism hotspot and Hannah’s mental health seem to conspire against their happiness. Hannah begins to disappear around the house, only to be found reading Wright’s papers or furiously scribbling in her own notebook. She is anxious, depressed, and insomniac. Because The Ghost Notebooks is narrated by Nick, we don’t quite get a clear look at Hannah’s decline until—near the halfway point of the novel—something devastating happens.

About half of The Ghost Notebooks is a portrait of unbearable grief. Another part is about the experiences of life: the pains, the joys, the banality of everyday life. I’m not sure I was completely convinced by the book’s arguments about being about to step into someone else’s skin. I was convinced by the book’s argument about the inadequacy of words to fully capture a person’s life. Even though one can document everything à la Samuel Pepys or people suffering from hypergraphia, it doesn’t mean that we can truly understand what it means to be that person.

The Ghost Notebooks is not a comfortable book to read. Though many characters struggle to reconnect with their dead loved ones, this book carries a strong tone of futility. This is very much a book about when grief goes terribly wrong.

Notes for bibliotherapeutic use: Recommend for readers who want to help someone through grief or depression but who struggle to understand the depth of emotion that person is feeling.

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