Growing up as a Lutheran, my religious education was very no frills. No saints. No transubstantiation. No relics. No pilgrimages to see said relics. But C.S. Cinneide’s novel Petra’s Ghost, gives me a glimpse into what motivates a person to undergo physical hardship to travel miles, to visit a holy site. This novel shows us a variety of those motivations: a grieving husband who is looking for the perfect place to put his wife’s ashes, a woman running away from her past, a Dutchman who really wants to make it all the way this time, and dilettantes who are not in the most pious mood and really just want to visit the wineries and clubs along the way.
The pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela has been in use for centuries. (I learned from Petra’s Ghost that the Christian route is superimposed on a pagan route that used to go all the way to Finisterre, on the Spanish coast.) The sign of St. James, a seashell, appears in hundreds of places along the route to guide pilgrims who walk kilometers a day. Daniel Kennedy is there because he and his wife (before she died of uterine cancer) planned to walk the route one day. Now that she has passed away, Daniel is carrying her ashes along the route, trying to find the right place to disperse them. While this sounds like a worthy errand, this mission is a delaying tactic. Once accomplished, Daniel has promised to return to the family farm in Ireland. He has to resume his life and he really doesn’t want to.
Daniel runs into several more possible procrastinations. One of them, Ginny, turns into a huge delay—through no fault of her own. Ginny brings out Daniel’s protectiveness. No matter how much she protests that she can take care of herself, Ginny just can’t seem to shake Daniel along the trail. Not only does Daniel cross paths with Ginny, he keeps bumping into a sweet Dutchman, a lecherous Englishman…Oh, and a woman who is missing her eyes and appears to be actively rotting. Petra’s Ghost begins normally enough. The longer it goes, however, the more Daniel starts to lose his grip on what’s real and what’s not. By the end of the book, Daniel’s holy errand/procrastination turns into a full blown horror.
Even though the book ends up being a horror story, Petra’s Ghost never loses touch with people’s motivations to do big things, like pilgrimages. Perhaps, above all, the reason why people do big things like this is that physical hardship keeps our bodies occupied so that our brains can really work on whatever emotional, spiritual, or intellectual issues we’ve been wrestling with. There must be something about blisters and slight dehydration that sets our brains drift, just enough, to make real progress.
I ended up liking Petra’s Ghost a lot. I would recommend this book to readers who like meaningful literary fiction that breaks the rules. I would also recommend it to readers who like horror stories that have more to offer than jump scares and crazed killers.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.