The plot of “You Came Back” is relatively straightforward. Mark and Chloe were married parents to their young son, Brendan. Tragically, Brendan died falling down the stairs at their home leading to their marriage breakdown. Sometime after this terrible event, both parents have moved on with their lives and relationships. At this point Mark and then Chloe are contacted by the occupant of their old family home, who tells them Brendan’s ghost is haunting the house, particularly her child Jake. This eventually leads to contact with a medium, the breakdown of both Mark’s and Chloe’s new relationships, and ultimately to an attempt to help Brendan’s spirit cross to the other side. Mark, a life-long atheist and sceptic, talks to young Jake before the intended crossing-over event, and scares him into admitting that he had lied - there had been no ghost. Mark then calls off the event, throwing out the medium and her husband, but this leave Chloe so desperate that she attempts suicide, asking Mark to die too so both can join Brendan in the afterlife. He refuses, drives her to hospital, and she survives, though is mentally unstable afterwards. Mark’s life moves on again. He and his previous partner, Allie, are having a baby girl and are making uneasy plans for the event. She is gradually learning to trust him again, despite him having cheated on her with Chloe. Before they move from the area, Mark drives to the old family home where Jake and his mum still live. Mark talks to Jake who tells him that Chloe has bought the house again.
The book’s storyline is quite simple, reflected in its equally simplistic writing style: third person, concentrating on the inner character of indecisive and spineless Mark. Though it does not abound with flowery prose, it also does not abound with action either. There is instead a huge amount of introspection from Mark. Much of the book, consists of Mark’s thoughts and worries, expressed over and over again.
There’s a lot I quite enjoyed about this book – the lengthy psychological profile of Mark, the build-up to the non-existent ghost, the differentiation between the characters who believed in the spiritual and those who didn’t, etc. I also enjoyed the limited palette of characters. Each was clearly drawn and there was no confusion between them, not because they were particularly well-written, but because they were very different from each other, and there were so few of them.
But, having said that there’s a lot I enjoyed, there’s a lot more that I didn’t: endless repetition of the same subject matter, the disloyalty of the protagonist, the ease he has coming to terms with treating Allie badly etc. Mark comes across as an emotionally immature manipulator of people, and not as someone who is easy to like, but I sense that liking Mark this was not an authorial priority. I can’t help thinking that if Mark’s introverted musings had been reduced, the book length could have been halved, his character would have been more likeable and the book would have been a better read as a result.
It might not have been a great read, but it was an easy read. Despite dealing with the powerful subject of grief within familial relationships, it comes across as corny (talking of phantom limbs and phantom son, Pg 207, for example) rather than rich, scholarly, deep or edgy. Also I was disappointed that the book claims to be speculative fiction and revolves around a ghost yet it is in no way at all a ghost story, there being no spookiness or sense of the macabre. The book’s blurb claim that it “examines the beauty and danger of belief in all its forms—not only belief in the supernatural, but in the love that binds parents and children, husbands and wives” and I guess that it does, but mainly it examines human vulnerability.
Anna Trench’s Guardian review claims the book is “moving without being mawkish” and that it “is not so much a book about ghosts as about the uncanny and unbalancing power of language, recollection and repetition (with) well-paced writing (which) has the ability to draw from the reader a painful, arresting empathy”. I am not sure I agree with the latter part of this sentence. Basically this book attracts polar opposites of opinion. Looking on Goodreads.com, you’ll see reader reviews varying from “everything you want a literary novel to be - a great premise that draws you in, fully realized characters that provide a deep insight into what it means to be human, and a writing style that gives you the feeling you're in the hands of a talent that won't let you down” to “My god did this book drag… entirely too self-indulgent”. Then there’s the reviewer who believes the book will “stay with you long after you've put it down” but another who says that in their book club “this would have been a contender for the worst of the bad”.