Review: Paper Ghosts by Julia Heaberlin

Paper Ghosts
by Julia Heaberlin

Carl Louis Feldman is an old man who was once a celebrated photographer. That was before he was tried for the murder of a young woman and acquitted. before his admission to a care home for dementia. Now his daughter has come to see him, to take him on a trip. Only she's not his daughter and, if she has her way, he's not coming back . . .

Because Carl's past has finally caught up with him. The young woman driving the car is convinced her passenger is guilty, and that he's killed, other young women. Including her sister Rachel. Now they're following the trail of his photographs, his clues, his alleged crimes. To see if he remembers any of it. Confesses to any of it. To discover what really happened to Rachel. Has Carl truly forgotten what he did or is he just pretending? Perhaps he's guilty of nothing and she's the liar. Either way in driving him into the Texan wilderness she's taking a terrible risk. For if Carl really is a serial killer, she's alone in the most dangerous place of all . . .
(cover image and synopsis lifted from Goodreads)

Series: Standalone
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Expected Publication date:  May 15th 2018
Source/Format: ARC/Netgalley
Pre-order links: Amazon | Indiebound | B&N | iBooks | BooksAMillion | Book Depository
My Rating: ★★★☆☆

My Thoughts:
A nameless young woman regularly visits Carl Feldman in a state welfare house, pretending to be his daughter. During his younger years, Carl was a documentary and fine art photographer, famous for his craft as much as for his alleged crime. But now he is old and suffering from dementia. Though already acquitted by the court, the nameless young woman obtained photographs taken by Carl incriminating him with the murder he was accused of as well as the disappearances of other women including her big sister, Rachel. So the nameless young woman lured Carl into joining her into a roadtrip across Texas to visit the places where the photographs were taken, hoping against hope that Carl remembers anything that will lead her to her missing sister.

I was instantly smitten by the premise. Roadtrips are intimate and suffocatingly up close that we mostly take them with family and friends, people whom we know, can tolerate and trust our lives with. So I was curious with this woman who will pack for a roadtrip with a possible serial killer. I was half hoping that she backs off (but then nothing will happen and there will be no book) and half cheering her to not give up until she finds the truth. The roadtrip style turned out to be both a benefit and a burden to the book.

Let me talk about the benefit first. Making the characters traverse a possible murder trail gives the author an opportunity to pepper the book with interesting people and places. There are glimpses of people they met along the way who left an impression on me. To mention a few: there is Trudy, a real estate agent selling the house where one of the murders occurred, who is paranoid not with the paranormal but with being alone in showing houses to strangers. There’s the feisty DeeDee, the deeply insecure woman who re-married the widow of a murder victim. Then Gretchen, the bestfriend of one of the victims. Even how Carl and the narrator perceive the patrons of a particular diner is interesting.

The travelogue aspect of the book is deftly handled. I got a grasp of the unforgiving side of Texas: a beach front where a girl goes into the sea and never comes back, an unmarked farm which may or may not be “an infinite burial ground”. Even the author’s description of mundane things like the clouds and the moon has this spellbinding ability to draw me in to the book. (Okay, there are a couple of the worn and tired “I let out a breath I didn’t realize I was holding.”, but other than that, the prose is beautiful) And it also helped that the book has a deep respect in photography. I am kinda creeped out but also somewhat agree with the book’s suggestion that when we look at people in the photos, especially the old ones, those people could be paper ghosts staring back at us. In between some chapters are actual eerie, black and white photos with chilling photographer’s (Carl’s) notes with them. The author in her acknowledgements mentioned that they are actually photographed by Jill Johnson and inspired by the works of Keith Carter.

quoted from an uncorrected proof copy

Now let me get with the burden part. Aside from the casual thieving and lying by both Carl and the nameless narrator, the plot got meandering in the middle. The lull of the roadtrip has no sense of urgency especially when everything is dependent upon Carl remembering despite his dementia. The narrator can only express the immediacy of things through the days passing by (she only has ten days before the state welfare house comes looking for Carl) and her depleting resources (she set a budget money for the trip) but not through her actions. 

The nameless woman narrator is always saying that she came prepared and trained for whatever danger that could possibly happen but when actual danger comes in, she is pulled back from the action. There’s this time when she can could have probably got some ass kicked but she got drunk and has to be saved by a Mysterious Man in the Dark ™. She does not even get to pull the trigger of the gun she is always anxiously holding. After ten days on the road, the book ended but the resolutions to the women’s disappearances came pretty much incidental. I think both the main character and Carl are a bit coddled, their roadtrip plot wanting more grit and macabre.

Diversity Watch:
Nameless Narrator is a white woman. Described as having gray eyes and naturally brown hair that she dyed red.

Carl Feldman is racially indeterminate.

Rachel is the narrator’s dead sister. Described as having straw colored hair and green eyes with a sprinkle of gold.

Lolita is a dark haired teen who regularly visits the state welfare house.

Artie is an Indian kid motel receptionist.

Vickie Higgins was one of the murder victims, described as blond and pretty and pale.

Angel is a Hispanic camera store owner.

Dr. Lucy Blumstein is an expert in dementia. She is a Korean adopted by American parents.

Violet Santana was one of the murder victims, described as blond.

Gretchen is a friend of Violet, described as having dyed auburn hair. Her kid son,Gus, is blond haired.

Andy is an FBI agent assigned to Rachel’s case. Described as black and bald.

Trudy is a real estate agent, racially indeterminate.
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