What urban couple wouldn’t want to trade the din of the Q train for the sound of crickets, exchange a cramped apartment for a spacious old building steeped in history, only a few hours drive from downtown Manhattan?
Think again. Ben Dolnick’s elegant, eerie new novel suggests it might be better to stay in Queens.
Nick, narrator of “The Ghost Notebooks,” has been with Hannah for three years. He’s a 30-year-old failed musician. She’s a year younger, fighting depression after losing her job at the New York Historical Society. Their fridge is covered with Save the Date! wedding notices from friends, but Nick remains reluctant to take the plunge himself. Still, after a dark night of the soul in a local dive, he proposes. Hannah accepts and a few weeks later takes a job as caretaker and curator of Wright House, a small upstate museum dedicated to the 19th-century philosopher Edmund Wright (inspired by Elbert Hubbard).
The museum has few visitors, which leaves plenty of time for Nick and Hannah to reboot their relationship, and for Hannah to research the Wright House’s melancholy history. Wright’s young son died in an accident. In the 1950s, another resident disappeared. Hannah’s predecessor left abruptly. A notebook that may explain these events is rumored to be hidden in the house.
Unsurprisingly, the place is reputed to be haunted, which Nick and Hannah don’t take seriously. “To have lived in New York City for any length of time,” Nick says, “is to have accepted that bizarre and horrible things have taken place in every room where you’ve ever set foot.” But then Hannah starts hearing voices, and, as Nick puts it, “The line between romantic getaway and lonely creepy farmhouse is, it turns out, fairly thin.”
So is the line between mental illness and what may be a genuine haunting. Dolnick excels at creating a subtle, growing sense of unease. His narrative shuttles skillfully between Nick’s point of view, pages from Wright’s work, Hannah’s curatorial observations, the case notes of the psychiatrist who treated Hannah’s depression and a series of fragmentary visions of everyday life, disturbing in their very mundanity.
Dolnick also doesn’t shy away from evoking unbearable grief and loss, far more frightening emotions than those encountered in less ambitious supernatural tales. When a terrible event upends the couple’s lives, Nick obsessively searches for the notebooks and an explanation for the Wright House’s tortured history. “Every house is a haunted house,” he realizes.
But the greater mystery unveiled in this powerful novel lies not in spooky atmospherics, but our own failure to connect with those closest to us. “All but a tiny slice of the things that have ever happened, even to the people we love, we will never know about or understand.”
Elizabeth Hand’s most recent book is “Fire,” a collection of short fiction and essays.
By Ben Dolnick
Pantheon. 256 pp. $25.95