on March 28, 2004
"Famous Christian" David Herrick finds his theology and his faith somewhat lacking when his wife, Jessica, dies. Still grieving after six months, David is surprised to receive a letter from Angela, a longtime friend of Jessica's whom David met when the three were involved in a youth group some 15 years earlier. Even more surprising is Angela's reason for writing: Several days before her death, Jessica wrote to Angela and sent her something to give David after she died, at a time and place of Angela's choosing. Recently divorced, Angela lives in Headly Manor, "one of the most haunted houses in England," which she and her ex-husband used as a source of income by charging visitors to experience the legendary residence of assorted ghosts. She plans a weekend reunion for those in the youth group that she and Angela knew best and tells David she will give him Jessica's gift at that time.
If all this sounds like a setup for a predictable romance between David and Angela, you'll be delighted to know that British author Adrian Plass's writing is anything but predictable. He consistently turns away from the obvious plot path, opting instead for less-traveled roads that not only keep the story moving along but also offer far more interesting opportunities for the characters to show themselves for who they are. Each of the former friends who meet at the house for the weekend is a fully developed, fully believable character haunted by his or her personal ghosts. Headly Manor's ghosts may be imaginary, but the ghosts that accompany the reunion guests are all too real.
From the start, you sense that GHOSTS is going to turn out to be a "Christian" book --- God speed the day when we can discard that designation! --- like no other you've read. After an opening in which David has a nightmare within a nightmare, Plass begins to tip his hand and reveal himself as the extraordinary writer he is. His poignant portrayal of David's approach to processing his grief --- his unwillingness to move the books on Jessica's nightstand or disturb the other "tiny museums of personal randomness" for months after her death --- culminates in David's suggestion that God reward his faithful service in ministry by allowing Jessica to appear to him one last time. It's a request that under other circumstances David would likely call unbiblical, but grief does that to a person. It changes one's theology, if only temporarily.
The events of the weekend comprise the largest share of the story, a story that Plass tells both skillfully and beautifully. The skill is evidenced by his ability to express spiritual and psychological truth with subtlety and finesse; the beauty is evidenced in Plass's apparent love of language, which he uses with grace and elegance. Throughout, the dialogue and action are wholly believable; the reunion guests are real people whose faith has at times taken quite the beating --- and whose spiritual struggles are nowhere near over. As the weekend unfolds, so do the hidden lives of the former friends. The reunion ends up bringing together much more than seven very different people.
GHOSTS is Plass's U.S. fiction debut --- and a remarkable literary achievement. Ironically, before writing GHOSTS, Plass was best-known in England for religious satire and nonfiction books, including a commentary on the book of Mark enigmatically titled NEVER MIND THE REVERSING DUCKS. With this novel, he raises the Christian fiction bar higher. Highly recommended for readers who crave a beautifully told, compelling, and transforming story.
--- Reviewed by Marcia Ford
on November 26, 2003
It's a good book.
The worst out of the way first---I'm not sure if I buy some of the plot contrivance: why the five (other than David) accepted an invitation to this reunion, why they would feel at all open to sharing their deepest fears with people they (for the most part) hadn't seen in over a decade. Plass' solution is possible, but it feels as if it were on the fringes of possibility.
His characters and themes, on the other hand, are evidently and powerfully true-to-life for the evangelical Christian, so much so that when I felt myself poking holes in the plot, I told myself to stop---I didn't want to ask those questions of this book. It had too much other truth to tell me.
Adrian Plass is good at naming what goes on in the evangelical, and in this book specifically, what the evangelical is afraid of. We're afraid of death, afraid to find out that the vast majority of people we know are right (there really is no God), afraid that our secrets are too dark for the holiness our God and church demand of us, afraid that our "Christian" persona lies about our insecurities. Plass, as usual (see his other works), goes right ahead and names these fears---the worst is out in the open---then writes grace into the script. The people in the story have to name their worst fear in front of the other people (it's a sort of ice-breaker, go figure). Then the other characters in the story give the fearer love, acceptance, and hope with well-timed, well-chosen words and actions. Because Plass is so right about the fears, I'm ready to believe him when he talks about the grace. In fact, his book is grace, a gift of hope to the people who struggle in the ways that his characters struggle, so in a way, his book proves that what he says is right.
In particular, these characters return to their youth-group reunion bruised by other people, but through the others in this group comes the love that is their hope. That's a vision of the church I could get excited about.