Thursday, September 15, 2016

A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay

"How can ghosts be in your head?" my four-year-old asked me one day. I had been talking to my husband about this book, and my son overheard me. "Uhhh..." I began. How do you explain something like that to a kid? I tried my best with a preschool explanation of this book's title, all the while realizing that for many people, the topics in this book are not abstract at all, but disturbingly real.

While not a ghost story, this book is frightening. Told from the perspective of Merry Barrett, in her early twenties in the present day, the heart of this tale occurs fifteen years earlier, when Merry is 8. It is at this time that Merry's 14 year-old sister, Marjorie, spirals into darkness. Once Merry's playmate and confidant, Marjorie changes, her behavior turning more and more menacing. Stories Marjorie once made up of friendly animals turn to stories of monsters and death. Normal sisterly playtime is replaced with cryptic notes and nightly visits by Marjorie to Merry's bedroom as she sleeps. Although Merry keeps these things to herself, her parents take notice as well. Merry's mother believes Marjorie is sick and needs the help of medical and psychological doctors. Merry's father, however, seeks spiritual guidance.

What seems like any family, yours or mine, suddenly seems like any family you'd rather not be. Trembley writes the Barretts in such an accessible way, driving home the delicate balance upon which all our lives hang. The contrast between the sweet innocence of young Merry and the shocking devlishness of Marjorie is written so well, you'll find yourself as afraid as poor Merry was of what Marjorie will do next.

The story tilts toward the hyperrealistic side when Tremblay introduces an element that unfortunately is becoming all too familiar, reality TV. In a desperate attempt to save Marjorie, Merry's father teams with a production company to televise the family's life as they prepare to perform an exorcism. Yes. I said exorcism.

If this makes you want to check out, don't let it. It's not clear one way or another if Marjorie has schizophrenia or is in fact possessed. Regardless of the true diagnosis, the fact that both possibilities could present themselves similarly is what's truly terrifying and intriguing about this story.

There are a lot of angles in this book, and it keeps the story dynamic. Whether you relate with Merry as a child or an adult, or with her mother, father, or even Marjorie, you'll be just as eager to see everything unfold as if you were watching the family on reality television yourself (but because it's a book, it's even better!).

Definitely a solid recommend, I couldn't put it down.

And I hope that's a better explanation of the book than I gave my son.

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