Jean, 39, lover of sci-fi, horror and fantasy, reader of comic books, conqueror of genre fiction.
To live with grief is to live in a haunted world.
This is illustrated in the literal in Waters' book, his follow up to the inventive and allegorical Generation Dead series. And what he does right in those books, he does right here, as if he perfected the themes that were present there, while introducing more interesting characters with a wider point of view. It has quite a bit in common, actually, with Passing Strange, if only because the growth he shows as an author has proven that he can write interesting and complex characters as well as presenting a strong and humanistic vision and message.
The theme here is grief. The world reflects this, at first: it's suffering in the throws of a seemingly natural, almost metaphysical-like disaster, the Event, which feels reminiscent of 9/11 (which is only mentioned once, though I could feel the authors own experiences in parts, as he lives in Connecticut and at one point, one of the characters notes that they remember seeing the dark clouds over the city across the Sound) though that real world event is only mentioned once, while other ghosts are evoked more often, like Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the Boxing Day tsunami. The Event is never fully explained, except in relation to the ghosts, and characters' hypotheses as to how one caused the other.
But on a more personal level, it's the story of three broken people suffering, being caught, literally in one case, inside of their grief. Veronica, delightfully complex as she is, is the class flirt. Her classmates, even her new boyfriend Kirk, see only that outgoing side of her, don't relate it to the typical signs of grief (and are surprised by her admission that her father's ghost still appears at her house, and then scandalized rather than sympathetic, a reaction that felt only to real to me, as this is a personal issue for me.) She goes through her life terrified of attachment, as she sees her own mother suffering from PTSD and an inability to move on so long as her father lingers; and yet, she craves attachment, she wants to find the one person who will attach themselves to her with a pure connection. She's unable to articulate this desire, subconscious as it mostly remains.
Brain is the ghost that haunts her bathroom. He committed suicide after his girlfriend was killed, and begins to appear, with renewed strength, as the fourth anniversary of her death--leap day--approaches. Literally anchored to this world by his grief and guilt, we are treated to his point of view directly, through short chapters written in first person narration. It's Brian that Veronica sees herself in, and Veronica whom Brian believes he can be redeemed through, by saving her from a leap year serial killer.
August Bittner was once a family man. The history teacher at the local high school, he is a man driven to actual madness by his grief, to desperate and homicidal measure to try to alleviate it, believing that he can return his daughter to him by killing young girls on the anniversary of her death and summoning her spirit into their bodies. His unhealthy desire to hold onto what was his has driven him to almost fetishize dates and anniversaries, and to warp the most common of sense in his own mind. (One of my favorite twists of the novel was Mrs. Bittner, as the book flip-flops between making you believe that she is a voice in his head only, to making you realize she is a ghost, but not what August thinks she is.) By keying us int to just what he is as early as the character's introduction, Waters allows us to follow his illogic, and the gradual breaking down of self.
The main theme here is memory, in one form or another. Others in Veronica's circle are affected: the Fish, her English teacher Mr. Pescatelli, is writing a book on the ghost phenomena in hopes of understanding how and why his daughter and wife were taken from him in the Event; Veronica's best friend, Janine, has been terrified since the ghosts first started appearing, because, for her, they present the idea that she might just be a nameless image in the future, a person that no one remembers. Through the course of the book, characters comes to terms, they begin to heal, when they can, or are destroyed by it, when they cannot. This book's understanding and sensitive handling of a subject that is so delicate and so close to me impressed me beyond what I was expecting, and what I could have hoped for. It doesn't pretend anyone will just "get over" their experiences, but it does show how they can be lived with. The positivity of the message left me feeling uplifted.
There are problems I had. The timeline, which is never fully laid out, seemed confusing and sometimes impossible. There were errors that could have been corrected in copy editing (at one point, Mr. Bittner remembers wrapping his hands around the scarf at Mary's neck, for instance, and recalls the feel of her jacket, but Mary's ghost is dressed for the summer; I had to read that a few times before I just gave up trying to understand if this fit in somehow, and remembered the mistake riddled Kiss of Life.) I wished that Kirk had more to do in the climax than just get knocked out and possessed by Brian, And that Mr. Bittner's end wasn't quite as philosophical or metaphysical as it was. But the climax wasn't a mess, either, and that's a rare thing.
But complex characters of both genders, given equal time and development, and strong world building using blunt allegory, but in an artful way, make this book into something special. Waters proves that he has a gift; there are very few YA authors I've seen who can do horror without either making it feel as if it would be better if it had been expanded on for adult audiences (Marcus Sedgwick), or like they're talking down to their targeted audience (Jonathan Maberry).
While the ending seems too ambiguous for some readers, I adored it, and I understood it exactly: Veronica is seeing herself for the first time in a long time, her own familiar face, after a month of watching Brian's grief stricken image there. And Brian's own image is no longer in her. Overall a story of hope presented in a realistic and non-condescending way, it raises questions of memory, faith, hope and love, and explores them all boldly, without providing you with biased answers.
"He Realized that one one was ever going to be happy again. That sort of happiness just didn't exist after the Event. Molly hadn't grown up with ghosts, and she hadn't had the larger specter of the Event, looming over her at all times., like everyone today. Kirk hadn't lost a single family member in the Event, something he'd never paused to be thankful for, but the Event and the ghosts that followed had killed part of him and everyone he knew."