You Came Back: A Novel by Christopher Coake (Grand Central Publishing, $24.99, 416 pages)
“…he’d spent the year before Brendan’s death sullen and sulky as a little boy… he’d spent his nights drinking and staring at the Internet instead of trying to explain to Chloe how he felt.”
Great ghost stories – ones that seem both plausible and questionable – don’t come along every day. One of the most recent great ones was Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger. Symmetry had us so enthralled that we posted three separate reviews of the haunting novel on this site. Now Christopher Coake has presented a story with all the depth of Symmetry, interestingly set in the neighborhoods of Columbus that adjoin the Ohio State University campus.
Our protagonist, Mark Fife, entered a period of isolating and drinking too much, which spurred his wife Chloe – the true love of his life – to leave him at home one night, supervising their young son Brendan. Mark orders his son to go upstairs while he drinks and watches an Ohio State basketball game on the TV downstairs. At some point Mark hears a strange sound and gets up to find that Brendan has fallen down the staircase, and has died from a broken neck. Thus begins the ruination of Mark’s existence. Chloe, who blames him for their only child’s death, divorces him and sells the house where the family once happily lived. Mark goes on to spend years living in a townhouse, drinking far too much and thinking about ending it all.
As the story opens, seven full years have gone by and Mark’s now happy with his life. He’s met Allie, the upbeat woman he’s engaged to, and he’s got a great friend from college, Lewis, who helps him to remain firmly footed in reality. And then… The woman who purchased Mark and Chloe’s former home has a story to tell. Chloe eventually sends Mark a letter explaining that this woman’s son has seen and heard Brendan’s ghost in the house. Is this for real or is it simply a ruse for Chloe – who hated Mark when she filed for divorce but now professes to once again be in love with him – to break up Mark’s forthcoming marriage to Allie?
Mark has spent his adult life being powerless when it comes to Chloe, and now she’s asking him to go to their old house to see Brendan’s ghost. Mark doesn’t believe in ghosts (“I’ve never believed anything like this. Never. This is hard.“), he never has, but then remembers that his serious and grounded friend Lewis once saw a ghost – and Lewis now tells him that seeing the ghost was one of the most authentic experiences in his life.
Will Mark run back to Chloe and in the process perhaps re-destroy his own life? Or will he spurn her and maybe lose out on the chance to again communicate with his long-lost son? What is real and important in life? Mark Fife is about to find out…
“…he went over the same looping sentences. If-thens, what-ifs. He came to no answers. Either Brendan was in the house or he wasn’t. Either way, Mark himself was trapped. Either way, he would hurt Allison or Chloe.”
Coake writes in an all-too-smooth style; one in which flawed humans are portrayed so realistically that the tale moves along as if it’s being projected onto a film screen. And, like Niffenegger, there’s a calmness about the telling that draws you in – but with the understanding that you’ll receive hints when the story is about to dramatically explode.
You’ll have to devote the time to reading 400 plus pages to appreciate Coake’s offerings. It’s a worthwhile price to pay for discovering a highly talented, powerfully skilled writer.
A review copy was provided by the publisher. You Came Back was released on June 12, 2012.
“When I finished the last page of Christopher Coake’s amazing new novel, I set the book down with a real sense of wonder… (This story) is less concerned with the supernatural than with the all-too-real specters that haunt us all – the ghosts of our former selves, the ghosts of the lives we might have lived had just a few things turned out differently… What an incredible writer.” Jennifer Finney Boylan, author of She’s Not There and I’m Looking Through You.
Here is a link to one of the reviews of Her Fearful Symmetry: