Ben’s Review: “The Ghost in Love” by Jonathan Carroll

I’ve been letting my thoughts settle about this novel for a few days now, but I ultimately decided I just had to work it out in writing.  Jonathan Carroll novels are things that I look forward to the way some people look forward to meals at their favorite restaurants, or concerts by a favorite musician.  I like to savor it, take it slow, let it breathe, take it all in.  Carroll has a singular talent for establishing an utterly attractive and believable world–usually with plots revolving around relationships, the good kind and the bad kind–and then, when the reader is content and safe to live in that world, he brings the weird.  And in that sense, The Ghost in Loveis different.  Carroll brings the weird from page one.  The premise of the novel is deceptively simple.  Ben Gould, an amateur chef, falls on on a slippery sidewalk and cracks his head on the curb.  Ben Gould is supposed to die.  Ben Gould does not die.  This sets off a chain reaction of events that threatens the entire structure of the universe.  In Carroll’s universe, a ghost is an entity apart from the deceased person, an entity that is sent to Earth after a death to deal with the deceased unfinished business, hauntings and the like.  Ben Gould’s ghost is named Ling–all ghosts have Chinese names; read the novel to find out why–and Ling falls in love with Ben’s girlfriend, German.

Within this strange universe, where beings called verzes protect the living, dogs can speak, and bums can follow you through your memories, Carroll, in his usual deft and aphoristic way, examines the nature of fate and what happens when man finds himself in control of that fate.  What happens when our fates are placed in our own hands?  What happens when that system is disrupted?

For me, sometimes Carroll’s characters either fall a little flat, or just seem to unrealistically cool.  People in Carroll novels always have interesting stories or talents and usually have great taste in food or music or literature.  However, in this novel, none of the characters ever felt artificial to me; the verisimilitude was never broken.  Well, what passes in a Carroll universe for verisimilitude.  However, there are times that it feels like Carroll is doing too much with the plot, riding a powerful horse with only one hand on the reins.  And indeed, don’t expect to go into this novel–or any other Carroll novel–and get a fully satisfactory resolution.  The strange rules and structures of Carroll’s plots do not lend themselves to tidy explanation, and indeed this may turn off readers who expect the story to all come together in the end.

That said, the last thirty pages of this book absolutely blew me away.  Not everything is answered, but Ben Gould’s ultimate confrontation is one of the most remarkable scenes I’ve read.  The last four pages, and especially the final image of the book, are so poignant, so unexpected, so perfect.

If you’re willing to go along for the ride, Jonathan Carroll is  well worth your time.  If you’re new to Carroll, I still recommend starting with his first novel The Land of Laughs, but you could do much, much worse than to take a chance on a new author and pick up The Ghost in Love.*

*This review originally appeared on my personal blog (Stone Kite) three years ago. My friend and book blogger Kim recently linked to my review in her own on her site Sophisticated Dorkiness. Since this review was originally posted, the book has come out in paperback. And three years on, I still this book kicks ass, earning it five helpings of lasagna.

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