Novels with ghost plots can be very ambiguous: who’s real, who’s dead, who’s a figment of someone’s imagination? And while The Ghost in the House starts off with a few of these questions, it quickly identifies the corporeality of its characters and eschews mind games in favour of exploring love, marriage and remarriage, and grief.
Fay wakes up on top of the piano in her Vancouver home, wearing only a white Oxford shirt and black pearls. Everything in her house is different, including the furniture, wall colours, and people. She sees a teenager, who Fay thinks might be a ghost, roaming the halls. And while Fay’s husband, Alec, is there, he can’t see her. “He looks straight through me,” she says. “I wonder how many times I’ve used that expression without truly understanding how wretched it could feel.”
Fay soon works out her scenario: she died five years ago at age 39 and is returning to her house now as a ghost to find that Alec is remarried and living there with his new wife, Janet, and Janet’s 13-year-old daughter, Dee (who’s not a ghost, just pale and gothy). As Fay comes to terms with her spirit status, she’s determined to make herself visible to her husband (well, Janet’s husband). Eventually, Fay has to decide how far she’ll go in haunting this family and inserting herself into their lives.
Alec’s life gets complicated quickly, and it’s hard not to imagine him as a more satisfying narrator than Fay; he’s introspective, anguished, and conflicted, and she’s a bit flat. Plus, we might get some insight into the key question hanging over the novel: why didn’t Alec move when he remarried? Was he hoping to keep some aspects of Fay in his new life? If so, he certainly got more than he bargained for.
Sara O’Leary is best known as a children’s writer, and in her first novel for adults, she employs some kidlit techniques. As a protagonist-narrator, Fay is surprisingly childish, even petulant at times. The story is presented in a series of short (one- or two-page) passages – somewhat chapter-book-like – which sync up with Fay’s ghostly entrances and exits. O’Leary uses mostly snappy declarative sentences and keeps the drama subdued, making it an accessible and relaxing before-bed read.
The themes, though, are mature. With its hint of mystery (how exactly did Fay die) and focus on upper-middle-class married life, the novel seems like the kind of book Reese Witherspoon might option – if it weren’t for the complete lack of scandal, murder, class conflict, and sex. (Ghost Fay can’t touch human Alec without electrocuting him.) Without these dramatic domestic standbys, The Ghost in the House is merely quiet, thoughtful, and unsensational.