Tin House Books, April 25, 2016.
This novel was a surprise – I’m not sure what I was expecting from Ghosts of Bergen County, but I didn’t think I would be so drawn in to this unusual, captivating debut novel. Yes, there are ghosts here, but they are less the frightening kind and more the “collective burden” of the mistakes of our pasts. The burden is based on the guilt and complicity of the decisions we all make, and while this novel is sorrowful, it is never bleak.
Gil Ferko is crippled by mediocrity – he works in the financial world of New York, yet he is unfulfilled and feels almost like a fraud when he is successful. His wife, Mary Beth, became hooked on prescription drugs after the death of their baby, and she has barely left the house since. He feels isolated at home and at his workplace. When Ferko unexpectedly reconnects with former classmate Jen Yoder, life suddenly becomes exciting again. Jen was always the cool girl, and Ferko finds himself drawn to her lifestyle – the friends, the fun, and even the heroin addiction.
Ferko and Jen begin to skip out on work to explore the seedy underworld of New York City. They go on adventures that could only be entertaining if you were high on heroin, which they are. Jen even introduces Ferko to her father, who wrote several books about ghosts. He explains to Ferko the concept of ghosts as a collective burden, viewing guilt as the place from which spirits arise. This theory applies to Mary Beth, who witnessed her infant daughter being killed by a hit-and-run driver, as well as to Jen, who watched a man fall/jump from the roof of a building – neither woman has recovered from the experience, and their guilt haunts them.
Meanwhile, Mary Beth begins to spend time with a young girl named Amanda who she meets in the forest near her home. She believes the girl is a ghost, and delving into her mysterious appearance gives Mary Beth a sense of purpose. Because Ferko and Mary Beth are both abusing hallucinogenic drugs, it’s hard to know if Amanda is really a ghost, or if the apparition is simply a case of folie à deux. Amanda exists while she serves a purpose for the living, then she is gone.
Ghosts of Bergen County is a quiet novel to begin with, but as the various plot threads come together, the pace increases – it is truly exciting when everything comes together. I did guess some of the outcomes, but certainly not all, and it was thrilling to witness the author work his magic. There are so many levels to the story that eventually intersect, and although some were a little convenient, it was still very enjoyable. The characters are all very real, which makes their experiences truly heartbreaking. In the end, when Mary Beth is asked who they are, she responds with “Ghosts” – and says she’s never felt more alive.
I received this novel from Tin House Books and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.