There are no spooks in Howard Norman’s “The Ghost Clause.”
The prolific writer’s latest novel turns the genre of the ghost story on its head – the point of view is the ghost himself. Absent are the eerie, creaking floorboards and slamming doors made by some malevolent spirit frightening recent homeowners. Rather, what takes up the story are the often comical reflections of the novel’s protagonist, Simon Insecort.
Simon is, or rather was, a novelist who ponders his past corporeal life and his current spectral afterlife. He was married to Lorca, a painter, who sells their 19th century farmhouse to a young couple after Simon’s death, Muriel and Zachary. The name of the novel comes from the house’s original contract that stated that if there were a malignant spirit in the house, the previous owner would have to buy it back.
But the ghostly Simon decides to stick around his old home. He spends much of his time reading Muriel’s books and setting off the alarm in her library. Muriel is chagrined at the concerned calls from neighbors and initially blames the disturbance on her cat or a malfunction of the couple’s home security system. But along the way, the new homeowners are flummoxed when they try to turn off the alarm and it keeps going off.
Meanwhile, Zachary, a private investigator, searches for leads on the recent disappearance of an 11-year-old girl, Corrine. The Vermont village is abuzz at the prospect of finding the girl. Corrine is known by the locals for her obsession with moths. She diligently extracts any she finds from her home and releases them after reciting their scientific, Latin names. This persistent hobby of removing the moths is contrasted with Simon’s inability to extract himself from his old house. Unlike the young Corrine, he’s too bound by the power of memory.
Zachary’s quest to find Corrine and Muriel’s attempt to get published her study of Japanese poetry has mild strains on their marriage. Simon observes all of this when he’s not interrupting with his antics in the library. He contrasts the domestic life of the young couple with his marriage to Lorca, a partnership that was more directionless yet just as loving.
Both Corrine and Simon are absent presences for the people who knew them. Simon still seems alive to Lorca when she talks at his grave. Lorca still plays along, but her life is, of course, tinged with melancholy. Corrine’s parents are optimistic that Zachary will find their daughter. The story is enriched when we observe, like Simon, how these people hold on to what they value and what they choose to let go.
All of the characters value their time quite differently in the face of mounting uncertainty or dealing with the past but they don’t forget their humanity along the way. “The Ghost Clause” is a time well spent.