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Grief Haunts 'Ghosts Of Bergen County'

Anyone who's lost a family member knows the feeling of unreality that follows. Psychologists call it "denial," but it's something more than that — it's a sense that you're not really there, that you're living in an alternate world, that the pain you're feeling can't possibly be real. Grief is a powerful thing, and it can temporarily turn people into walking ghosts.

Or, as Dana Cann writes in his debut novel, Ghosts of Bergen County: "This was life: you're here. And this was death: you're not. And then you're here again, haunting some stranger. And none of it matters."

The ghosts in Cann's novel are both literal and figurative. The book follows Gil and Mary Beth Ferko, a married couple who lost their infant daughter two years previously. The death was caused by a hit-and-run driver who collided with her stroller while Mary Beth was jogging; the driver was never caught.

Mary Beth, a former real estate lawyer, has spent the ensuing years as a shell of a person, "gone, beyond repair," taking long walks around their suburban town, watching children at play in schoolyards. Gil has thrown himself into his work in private equity, commuting daily to Manhattan.

But grief tends to make strange things happen, even long after the original loss. Mary Beth befriends a young girl who claims to live in the woods behind a school; she eventually figures out that the girl might be something other than human, but she's unable to pull herself away.

And Gil befriends two former grade school classmates of his, each with their own troubled pasts. When one of them, Jen, introduces Gil to heroin, he's unable to think of a reason not to try it. "Nothing mattered," Cann writes. "It was bliss. He sat there for a long time soaking it in. And it refused to stop, refused to get old, to get weak. ... He kept feeling good, again and again."

Drugs and magical thinking are two of the most common ways people deal with grief, and of course, neither is sustainable in the long run. Cann understands this, and he does a beautiful job painting a portrait of a marriage threatened by guilt and despair.

It's a new feeling for Gil, and he finds he can't resist the pull of the drug. Jen, meanwhile, is trying to kick the habit, which she's used to suppress a painful memory of her own — a night years before when she drunkenly accompanied a playwright to his apartment, only for him to fall to his death from the roof of the building.

Drugs and magical thinking are two of the most common ways people deal with grief, and of course, neither is sustainable in the long run. Cann understands this, and he does a beautiful job painting a portrait of a marriage threatened by guilt and despair: "Their circumstances were extreme, perhaps unique. But as a couple, engaged in the inconsequential-word dance, they weren't unique. You didn't need to lose a child to lose a marriage. Still, they had lost a child."

And while he refuses to pull any punches — he romanticizes nothing in this powerful, sometimes brutal novel — he also resists the urge to turn the book into something entirely bleak and hopeless. There are moments of levity in Ghosts of Bergen County, including an unexpectedly funny conversation following the arrest of one of the main characters.

The novel ends in a place that's both realistic and somewhat hopeful, although it's maybe a little too neat. Cann ties together the strands of the narrative, but too tightly — the ending is dependent on a long string of coincidences that's slightly too tidy to be believable. It's true that this is, at its core, a ghost story, but the final scenes require a suspension of disbelief that's maybe too much to ask, given what came before.

But that's a minor quibble, especially for a debut novel from a clearly talented author. Ghosts of Bergen County is a tough, compassionate book by a writer with a keen sense of what makes us human, and what makes us, at times, wish we weren't. As a novel, it's excellent; as a meditation on grief, it's stunningly perceptive. "Grief was a clock, with hands that moved if you waited long enough," Cann writes. "Ferko suspected he'd cheated grief, with its linear qualities, its inflexible rhythms. He'd discovered a shortcut, somehow, that took him to a place he wasn't supposed to go."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Michael Schaub is a writer, book critic and regular contributor to NPR Books. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Portland Mercury and The Austin Chronicle, among other publications. He lives in Austin, Texas.

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