Thursday, January 7, 2016

Review: "A Head Full of Ghosts"

I read Paul Tremblay's A Head Full of Ghosts in about a week, which is pretty much rocket-speed when you consider that I am no longer a teenager who can spend two days behind a closed bedroom door, reading a novel over the course of one week-end.

POTENTIAL SPOILERS (depending on what you consider spoilers)

Having been raised Protestant (not zealously, but enough so that I went to church just about every Sunday morning, including Christmas morning BEFORE presents), and having had an acute anxiety disorder (for which I need to take medication every day) for the better part of 15 years, A Head Full of Ghosts struck a very close chord with me.

Tremblay plays off the psychological horror of being afflicted with a mental illness against the seductive power of religion as presenting an instant cure in return for unquestioning faith. The novel pits this tension within the context of familial relationships, the likes of which are, inevitably and inherently already imbued with their own complex set of tensions.

The previously-mentioned Protestantism (now entirely lapsed and well-buried), as well as my interests in psychology and the mind, has kindled in me a fascination with the concept of possession. A Head Full of Ghosts addresses this both subtly and horrifically, but the horror here is compounded by the novel's domestic setting, rendering it an all too real potential experience for all of us.

I don't generally read YA, and I suppose, because of the novel's "retelling" narrative framework, it can be labelled as such. This tactic renders the adult Meredith, who relates her childhood experiences to a journalist writing a book about the incident, to some degree an unreliable narrator. Does she correctly remember the events that took place when she was only 8 and her sister 14? Did she interpret them correctly at the time? This sense of uncertainty runs throughout A Head Full of Ghosts; at times, the novel is clearly about the breakdown of a family, yet there are instances where the uncanny creeps in and the reader is left to wonder - is there something more going on?

The novel also comments on how modern ideas about demonic possession has influenced our psychological response to such a notion. Tremblay addresses the relentless psychological power of religion as a means to an end, as well as the consequences of such blind trust without preaching to his reader, something that is not always easy, considering the subject matter.

If you are looking for an engaging read, and you have a penchant for the psychological and/or religious, I highly recommend A Head Full of Ghosts. Be prepared to come to your own conclusions, however; there are not always definitive answers, but this is an aspect of the novel that I believe renders it even more powerful, and certainly, more thought-provoking.