The premise of You Came Back instantly appealed to me: Mark and Chloe lost their young son Brendan in an accident in their home. Grief-stricken, they moved out and later divorced. Now, Mark is engaged to Allison and thinks he’s moved on, until he is contacted by a woman living in his old house who claims it is haunted by Brendan’s ghost. I like an element of mystery and intrigue in the books I read, and so when I was offered an ARC of this book from Penguin I gladly accepted it. My copy is covered in positive reviews from respectable sources and I have read mostly good reviews of the novel on GoodReads (most give it five stars), and for the most part it is enjoyable.
The most notable thing is the deep sense of emotion that runs through it. Mark is our main character, and Coake does a wonderful job of really getting inside his head and exposing his mind to the reader. The depiction of Mark is so vivid it could almost be 1st person narrative. In a way, though, I’m glad it isn’t. This is a very emotional and intense book, and if it were narrated by Mark I feel it would get lost in his own thoughts and the reader would have to wade through the mire of unhappiness and confusion, and would probably, frankly, give up and read something else. Coake keeps us just outside Mark’s state of mind so that while we are aware of his thoughts and feelings we are not entirely wrapped up in them. This means that we are still able to see things as objectively as possible – though at points one does get roped in to Mark’s way of thinking, whether one agrees with it or not.
It’s been seven years since Brendan died and his relationship with Chloe fell apart, and Mark is happy with Allison. ‘Happy’. Happiness is examined here in great depth. So is desire, and being true to yourself about what you really want. Until it happens to you none of us can know what it feels like to lose a child, and Mark still wonders what life would have been like if Brendan had lived, or if he could have done anything to change what happened. Chloe was out, Brendan had a tantrum and Mark told him to tidy his room, before sitting on the sofa to drink whiskey and watch basketball. Brendan, still grumpy, stomped up the stairs and packed a bag, intending to run away. He fell down the stairs and died. Mark wonders if Brendan would have lived had he gone upstairs to talk to him rather than brooding over his drink in the living room; if he’d talked to Brendan rather than ordering him upstairs, and Brendan hadn’t wanted to run away at that moment.
Mark’s been thinking about this, intermittently, for seven years, and he still doesn’t have an answer. As with a lot of situations in life, wondering about different outcomes doesn’t help us gain closure; it only sends the memories around and around in our minds and gets us more and more upset about the way things happened. Mark is happy, but he is still tormented.
There is a lot in this book about being a family, and how that works. Mark and Chloe and Brendan were a family, and now Brendan is dead and Mark and Chloe are at best terse and cold with each other at their annual dinners on Brendan’s birthday. Mark wonders if they still would have broken up if Brendan hadn’t died. Again it is the wondering about what could have happened that makes the facts of things seem worse. Mark loves Allison, and their life together is good and happy, but he wonders all the time if he can be as happy with her as he was with Chloe, when things were good. He knows he loved Chloe in a different way. Their relationship goes back years, to college, and Mark’s dad Sam is still in touch with Chloe too. When you were once a family, it’s hard to forget it, even if there have been bad times since. Mark has moved on, but he hasn’t forgotten. The reader wonders if he only moved on because he had to, rather than because he really wanted to.
There is some really great writing in You Came Back, and more than enough scope of feeling and imagination to convince the reader that Christopher Coake really is a good writer; but there are also a lot of flaws. At times the acute emotions in the novel become overwhelming and the reader feels suffocated. We follow Mark through every action of every day and you begin to long for accurate summaries, a more impressionistic approach that does not require a log of his entire day. Which is sometimes what you get. It can get a little hard-going and sometimes you just need a break.
The issue of Brendan possibly being a ghost is a massive one. At first, the new inhabitant of the old house, Connie, appears as a madwoman that Mark is afraid of; and rightly so, as she stalks him and talks to him about very personal, painful things. He unsurprisingly tells her to back off and threatens to have her arrested if she doesn’t; but then Mark’s friend Lew reminds Mark of his own belief in ghosts, and when Connie contacts Chloe, she tells Mark she believes what Connie is saying might be true. Mark is then thrown into doubt – he wants to believe Chloe, but also thinks she might be using Brendan as a way to get between him and Allison. It all gets a bit dramatic, and Mark starts to go a little nuts. He doesn’t know what he believes.
Without giving anything away there has to come a point in the story when it must be determined whether or not Brendan really is a ghost living in the house where he died. Now, I love a good old fashioned ghost story, but those often involve an element of horror or fear in some way. This book does not. It is not a horror story, nor is it a ‘romp’ like The Little Stranger, which was dramatic, scary and fun at the same time. There is no fun in this book. No one is ever happy or having a good time, and there is no juicy drama in the ghost story. The whole thing is bleak and sad, and everyone is distant and lonely. To be honest, by the time I was halfway through, I was fed up of how depressing it was.
In the middle, after Chloe confesses she believes Connie, the story begins to drag and the conclusion seems rather far off. All sense of pace dissipates and the reader feels lost in a sea of emotions from Mark, Chloe and Allison. Mark and Allison’s relationship begins to suffer, and he spends an increasing amount of time wondering whether his son really is a ghost, and what that might mean. He is torn between the past and the present, with the future looming somewhere in the distance, and is trying to run away from all of it. Mark is desperate, and he sees no way out; the pressure starts to get to the reader, and you need to put the book down for a few moments.
Plausibility is a big issue in You Came Back. Mark wonders whether the ghost is real; whether Chloe really believes in it; whether Connie is crazy or what; there are a lot of questions he cannot answer. For the reader, the plausibility of the story is sometimes doubtful. If you don’t believe in ghosts, spirits and mediums (I personally don’t) then the characters who do believe can get a little trying. I wondered how I would respond if I was, say, Allison’s friend, and she was telling me about all this from an outside perspective. I would think it was ridiculous, but I would also feel very sorry for Chloe – a still-grieving mother desperate to hold onto her child. I expect I would find it hard to believe that Mark was getting caught up in the whole thing, unless he wanted to leave Allison for Chloe. The whole thing, at times, seems a little far fetched.
I know there are a lot of people out there who believe in ghosts and spirits, and the abilities of mediums. They are all over the television. Religion comes into the novel when a medium is hired who is a devout Christian, but it is not an overarching theme. This is more about grief, and love, and dealing with loss. A lot of mediums are accused of preying on the emotions of grieving people who are unable to let go of those that have died, and at times the reader suspects that Chloe’s belief in Brendan’s ghost is just wishful thinking; but would she want her child to be trapped in some sort of limbo? It’s a tricky subject, and Mark grapples with it throughout the book.
I expect that most people’s reaction to this book will be based on their feelings towards dealing with loss and grief, and their beliefs about ghosts and mediums. I’ve read a lot of reviews that praise the book for its depth of feeling in describing a mourning relative, and the effects of loss on a person’s state of mind. You Came Back deserves this praise; but, I felt, the book was sometimes too over-emotional and, like the mediums, was counting on the emotional reaction of the audience. Now, I am not unfeeling. There are books that have made me cry; but the overwrought, and frankly melodramatic emotions in this book activated my cynical side. It is simply too much.
I think that if the emotional drama was toned down a little, and the length shortened to a more concise volume, then You Came Back could be a really terrific novel. Its problem is that it rambles and wallows in its own emotion, drama and mystery. It, like its characters, just cannot let go.
Originally published in the US by Grand Central Publishing in June 2012, and was published in the UK in paperback by Viking, an imprint of Penguin, also in June 2012. My copy was kindly provided by Viking for review.