A dead writer haunts his former home, reliving the conflicts of his own past life as he observes the young couple who have moved into the rural Vermont farmhouse he once shared with his beloved wife. That’s the premise of National Book Award finalist Howard Norman’s latest novel, “The Ghost Clause.” But if that sounds like a horror story, or at least a tragedy, this new book is anything but.
Although the protagonist Simon Inescort has died — keeling over from a heart attack at the age of 48 — his focus throughout this rambling, at times beautiful, at times annoyingly precious novel is on life, love, and how people move forward through loss.
Simon’s tragedy, even before his untimely demise, was childlessness. He and his wife, Lorca, had fallen for the onetime farmhouse in part because of its legacy: “The house’s got good luck for children,” they were told, because each of the house’s original family’s daughters was born in what now serves as its library. But although Simon comes to love that library, particularly after his death, he and his artist wife had been unable to bear a child of their own, which strained their otherwise happy marriage. (Adoption does not seem to be an option.)
The couple in the contemporary story, who have purchased the 1845 home from the widowed Lorca, are still mulling the question of children as the book opens. Alexander, a private detective, is too caught up in his latest case, a missing child, to want to venture into having his own. His wife, Muriel, meanwhile, is launching her own career and has just defended her doctoral dissertation. Her subject, a book of Japanese erotic poems that she is translating, serves to emphasize the growing distance between the two as Alexander begins to spend nights away from home, obsessed with his search for the lost child.
With the benefit of hindsight, Simon watches the couple as they dance around their bigger issues, lamenting for them the time they have already lost – time that he is all too aware is limited. What he observes sparks memories of his and Lorca’s life, including the mistakes they made, many of which he sees the newcomers repeating.
These stories alternate as Simon, unnoticed by all but the newcomers’ cat, Epilogue, wanders through his former abode, reading books in the old library and occasionally setting off the house alarm, much to the new residents’ confusion.
After repeated visits without finding any reason for the seemingly false alarms, a technician ultimately suggests a ghost, pointing out the “ghost clause” in the house’s deed. That clause, a real option on many older Vermont houses, allows home buyers to sell back their houses for the original purchase price in the event of a malevolent spirit haunting the premises. But Muriel and Alexander are too much in love with the old house to consider leaving. Like the couple before them, they wanted the creaky old property as soon as they saw it, a more mundane expression of the house’s mystical qualities.
Norman, who like his protagonist, makes his home in East Calais, Vt., has long had a preoccupation with memory and loss. These themes run through novels like 1998’s “The Museum Guard,” as well as memoirs like 2013’s “I Hate to Leave This Beautiful Place,” and clearly inform this new novel. Simon is not a morbid ghost, but he cannot help reminiscing, often with regret, about what he has lost.
Norman’s observations of life’s joys — as voiced by Simon — are often beautifully specific, intimate, and detailed. Sensing that he will begin to fade, the ghost takes note of the life around him: “I will also miss seeing a fox loping boldly down the snowy dirt road, or the way a crow, as it crosses the wide field behind the farmhouse, hardly flapping a wing, indicates the updrafts.”
This is lovely writing. However, when the descriptions begin to pile up, they lose their impact, becoming as bloodless as that ghost: “The plaintive cries of plovers. Pelicans, gulls. Bird and breaking wave, bird and breaking wave.” Although Simon’s close observations are interrupted by small attempts at humor — that cat — and lots of implied, life-affirming sex, they are too often as mawkish and didactic as advice from any well-meaning elder. This tendency is emphasized by Norman’s infatuation with certain words — like “ongoingness” and “crepuscular” — which recur a bit too often.
When Muriel quotes Faulkner — “the past isn’t even past” — her husband notes, “That’s all a little too literary.” Perhaps not to the newly minted academic or to Simon, her spectral predecessor in the house. Norman however, should have listened to his own characters and rooted them a bit more forcefully in the present.
The Ghost Clause
By Howard Norman
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 256 pp. $27