The afterlife is a popular motif in fiction, on the big or small screen or in books. You can’t throw a gravestone without hitting a boy who sees dead people, or a mom channeling a murdered teenager, or a Long Island housewife giving readings in the supermarket. In the real world, however, telling people you’ve seen a ghost is bound to get you some strange looks, if not a one-way ticket to the funny farm.
That’s one of the reasons why Susy McPhee’s novel, Back to You is so refreshing. When Claudia tells her family that she’s been communicating with her dead fiancé Marius, they don’t ask what the weather is like in heaven – they’re afraid it’s another sign that she is losing her mind. And under McPhee’s deft writing and plotting, the reader doesn’t know, either.
Eight months ago, Marius disappeared in a climbing accident in China. After a first-hand account from his climbing partner, Marius was declared dead; a memorial service was held. Claudia’s been sleepwalking through life ever since, and just recently took a Friday-only volunteer job at a thrift store. Marius is constantly in her thoughts, so much so that when she sees him across the street from the store one snowy night, she assumes he’s a figment of her imagination. But later that same evening, meeting her brother Richard at a pub to celebrate his impending fatherhood, she sees Marius again, and spends an hour or so talking to him. When Richard shows up, Marius is gone...and Richard tells Claudia the bartender said she’d been sitting by herself the whole time. Claudia is ready to believe she imagined the entire conversation...until Marius shows up at their apartment, and they spend the night together.
Is Marius a ghost? Is Claudia losing her mind? Or perhaps she has a brain tumor? Even while she’s enjoying her fiance’s return from the dead, Claudia constantly questions what’s really going on. Her family is convinced she’s hallucinating, or perhaps Marius is some kind of adult version of an imaginary friend. As Claudia begins remembering details of the early, foggy days surrounding Marius’ accident, she has to admit that losing her mind isn’t such a far-fetched option after all.
This is a detailed, descriptive, literary novel with a writing style that perfectly matches its plot. Its slow pacing and attention to detail create a sleepwalking-type state for the reader, a place where dead loved ones come and go, a place that’s comfortable to hide from reality. McPhee’s character work is just as rich: Claudia and Richard’s sibling relationship is multi-dimensional, filled with teasing, inside jokes, and genuine concern. Her parents, who seem a bit overbearing at first, are gradually revealed to be justified in their hovering. McPhee also does a wonderful job slowly revealing who Marius is and the contours of his relationship with Claudia. It is not a coincidence that his accident took place in China.
My only true quibble with the book is the ending, which seems tacked on to elicit a certain emotional response from the reader. With all the careful work McPhee had done with setting and language, it stands out in an artificial way. This may be just my opinion, however, and other readers may find McPhee delivers exactly the ending they need. In any case, this dreamy, “is he or isn’t he” novel is just the type of book to get lost in during these cold, dreary months ahead.
Thanks to Susy McPhee for the book in exchange for an honest review.
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