The Ghost Notebooks by Ben Dolnick was a combination of the most detailed descent into grief and madness ever written and a heartwarming story of love and salvation. I started reading this book with high hopes. The blurb makes it sound like something that keeps you on the edge of your seat, however I found that wasn’t quite the case.
Initially, the book reads as a simple memoir. A recounting of a man’s life. The beginning is a very long set-up, wherein Dolnick delivers excruciating details on the minutiae of Nick and Hannah’s lives, from their meeting to their careers. The entire first (nearly half of the book) section is devoted to this…staging what leads up to the encounters with spirits and the disappearance of Hannah from Nick’s life. There were points where I was tempted to skim, but the writing was beautiful despite the somewhat boring subject matter, and I would find myself drawn back in, over and over.
The writings of Wright at the beginning of each chapter seemed to serve no purpose, though reading them is highly recommended due to the nature of Part 3 of the book. Also, the stream-of-conscious writings that head up random chapters are DEFINITELY necessary to read, despite the difficulty in lack of punctuation.
Dolnick’s handling of mental illness is masterful. The contrast between Hannah’s nearly invisible illness and Nick’s very in-your-face grief and subsequent spiral is amazing, and neither one appears to be more or less tragic for it. The suffering of both characters exists without comparison. At times, you wonder what would have been different had Hannah been more open? Others, you wonder if the reason for her lack of candor regarding her illness is because Nick is oblivious to her suffering. The interpersonal relationship becomes more convoluted after Hannah disappears, as Nick begins to realize just how little he knew her…and then you have to wonder how much of that spurs on his own devolution.
I spent most the book in a state of confusion, crafting plausible and not-so-plausible theories on what happened to the characters (major and minor) that would get supported or rejected as the book progressed. It wasn’t until, perhaps, the last 1/3 of the book that things started to pick up and the thriller part really got going. The last 100 pages were definitely fast-paced (but still with bouts of “WHEN WILL IT END” that seemed to detract somewhat from the pace. The ending was both a relief and a bit of a disappointment, as the lead-up was so dramatic, it was almost an anti-climax. However, I actually like that the question of what happened to Nick is left open. It would have felt completely out of place to have the whole of the story wrapped up.
Overall, the pacing was somewhat erratic, but that almost lends a higher level of credibility to the whole story. I would probably say that this is somewhere between a 3 and 4 star book. The compelling story making up drastically for the strange pacing. I am not sure who I would recommend this to, but I’m sure I know a few existentialists who would appreciate it.
If you want to see just how far down the rabbit hole late 19th century spiritualism and ghosts can take you, grab a copy of The Ghost Notebooks by clicking the image below.