Paper Ghosts – Julia Heaberlin
Release Date: May 15, 2018
Final Thoughts: ⭐️⭐️
When Grace was twelve years old, her sister Rachel vanished without a trace. No body was found, no evidence was conclusive, and no killer was brought to justice. Taking it upon herself, Grace spent her entire life training and preparing to find the dark truths about her sister’s disappearance. She kidnaps Carl Felderman, an acquitted dementia patient suspected of serial murders that coincide with his career’s trail of haunting photographs. Desperate to solve Rachel’s mystery, Grace leads Carl on a breadcrumb trail around his suspected murder locations, hoping against hope that he’ll remember his crimes and confess.
Heaberlin’s novel is unusually and interestingly paced. As a narrator, Grace never gives anything away except her current actions. The book is HEAVILY based in the present, outside of a few reflective mentions of her childhood surrounding her sister’s disappearance. She gives us pieces of the story only as they are relevant. However, she doesn’t keep us guessing. As a narrator, Grace doesn’t know any of the truth. She can’t lead us on as readers if she doesn’t even know the path she’s on. The book is devoid of the usual magnetism of a thriller; it doesn’t pull us toward conclusions or keep us guessing about plot twists. This format is unusual, uncomfortable, but just off-putting enough to keep us on edge.
Their car trip together is an extremely long, elaborate route planned years in advance by Grace (and if you, like me, aren’t familiar with many Texan landmarks, their sightseeing might go over your head). She has been strangely meticulous in her preparation and paranoia. However, more than once, Carl gets the upper-hand: he steals hundreds of dollars from her cash pile, he runs away from her possession, and he often dictates where they travel and where they stop. For a woman who trained for years to be in control of her fear and safety, she yields an awful lot of her control over to the “bad guy.”
For the entirety of the novel, we are trusting Grace’s actions, motivated by a thirst for vengeance and a serious struggle with fear. But I never really felt a rush of understanding for her actions. She’s been studying various case files of murder victims for years, and ultimately concluded that Carl, even though he can’t remember, is at fault for them. She believes fiercely that he is the thread between their deaths and Rachel’s demise. However, because the novel is so unyielding in its delivery of the present, with minimal backstory or context, it is extremely hard to view her as a reliable or relatable narrator, or make our own predictions about his guilt. Most of the time, I can’t even tell why Grace is so scared of Carl, outside of her own assumptions and paranoia.
I never feel like I know why she makes her choices. Why does she believe it’s Carl? Why has she spent thousands of dollars and years of her life to catch a man who might not even remember his own alleged crimes? Why are her plans so outrageously elaborate if she’s just going to let a serial killer steal her money and drag her around Texas, trusting him completely? She even mentions that she hired a “trainer” to help her navigate terrifying, near-death scenarios. This mysterious Ra’s Al Ghul character should’ve warned her to not let a serial killer get away from her in the middle of the desert so many times.
The novel is a strange road trip. It feels as if the first 250 pages of the book are just an effort to get us to trust Carl. We aren’t given much to predict, assume, or feel suspenseful about, so when the answers were finally and swiftly revealed, I was hopeful that it would be like sweeping open a trapdoor to reveal deep skeletons. Unfortunately, while the loose ends were resolved and Grace finds the source of her justice, there was no magical surprise. We got our answers, and they made sense, but that’s about it. It’s a perfectly rational ending.
Heaberlin’s novel ultimately asks us to question goodness and evil, and proposes that bad men have shreds of light within them. The strongest aspect of Paper Ghosts is in accordance with this; Carl is a supposed villain with a heinous appetite for murder, but somehow, he is witty and friendly and inherently likeable. As readers, we never know who to trust in this story, but we are drawn to appreciate the antagonist anyway.
Heaberlin successfully avoided any of the tropes that are so often found in the thriller genre. Her female protagonist didn’t have an abusive spouse, a drinking problem, and she wasn’t fighting for the world to believe her. Her personal, vigilante vengeance is appreciated, even if she’s the world’s worst planner. Paper Ghosts didn’t deliver on a story of twists, turns, and frightful excitement, but the unlikely pair of main characters is pleasantly reminiscent of Hannibal Lector’s creepy friendliness toward Clarice Starling. The various murder cases appease an appetite for true crime, and when all of the victims find their peace, I’m thankful that the book at least had a happy ending.