PAPER GHOSTS by Julia Heaberlin
Ballantine Books; 5/15/18
CBTB Rating: 3.5/5
The Verdict: a compelling travelogue-meets-serial killer novel
What do you get when you cross the sweeping terrain of Texas with a road trip to recover a serial killer’s lost memories? Julia Heaberlin’s PAPER GHOSTS. In an inventive and immersive story of suspense, Heaberlin takes readers along for the ride as a young woman seeks answers to her sister’s disappearance... and does so in the form of a cross-state adventure with the man she suspects of killing her. Vivid descriptions of Texas, unexpected character development, and a creative plot complete with “journal entries” and other assets are a boon to Heaberlin’s latest effort; occasional meandering pacing and a questionable conclusion detract from the reading experience ever so slightly. Perhaps best appreciated by those familiar with the Lone Star state, PAPER GHOSTS is at its best when describing all the everyday glory of Texas, from Sixth Street in Austin to the urban sprawl of Houston, and all the hill country and farmland in between. Though not quite the tense, dark suspense novel I had expected it to be, PAPER GHOSTS nonetheless delivers intrigue and raises compelling questions surrounding memory, guilt, and the intersection of the two. A strong addition to the spring reading list of those looking for an atypical take on the serial killer novel.
An obsessive young woman has been waiting half her life—since she was twelve years old—for this moment. She has planned. Researched. Trained. Imagined every scenario. Now she is almost certain the man who kidnapped and murdered her sister sits in the passenger seat beside her.
Carl Louis Feldman is a documentary photographer who may or may not have dementia—and may or may not be a serial killer. The young woman claims to be his long-lost daughter. He doesn’t believe her. He claims no memory of murdering girls across Texas, in a string of places where he shot eerie pictures. She doesn’t believe him.
Determined to find the truth, she lures him out of a halfway house and proposes a dangerous idea: a ten-day road trip, just the two of them, to examine cold cases linked to his haunting photographs.
Is he a liar or a broken old man? Is he a pathological con artist? Or is she?
The first thing a reader will have to accept about PAPER GHOSTS: this plot will require you to suspend belief just a bit. If you’re comfortable doing so, you’re in for a one-of-a-kind travelogue. In PAPER GHOSTS, our main character sets out on an ill-advised mission to get closure on her sister’s disappearance years prior. In the time since that tragedy, our main character has been training: training to be prepared for when she finally catches up with the villain responsible for her sister’s disappearance. She’s been doing some detective work, too; she has hunted down the man she holds responsible for the crime. Now she’s ready to make her move. Her “move”, though, is questionable—she has decided to remove the suspect from the care home where he lives, under pretense of taking her “father” (aka the suspect) on a father-daughter trip. In reality, she’s planning to take the suspect to revisit the sites of his alleged crimes, in hopes of breaking through the fog of his dementia and triggering a memory—and, by extension, a confession. Now, this plot is entertaining to be sure, but it won’t work for readers who need their fiction entirely grounded in reality. If that describes you, you’re likely to find yourself reading this scheme while making a little mental checklist of all the ways this plot would fail in real life. If you’re willing to suspend belief just a bit, though, you’ll find this plot an inventive and compelling one. Embarking on this journey with Heaberlin’s main character will draw readers into a sometimes-bizarre, often dreamlike exploration of past crimes both real and imagined.
If you’re at all familiar with Texas, you will love the cross-state adventure Heaberlin’s characters embark upon. For me, this was one of the highlights of the read—I devoured Heaberlin’s heartfelt and vivid depiction of the many cultures and landscapes found within the Lone Star state. Readers will not be surprised to learn that Heaberlin is a Texas native. As a former Houstonian myself, I couldn’t help but feel nostalgic as Heaberlin introduced her readers to some of Houston’s most recognizable landmarks (the Hotel Zaza, Hermann Pak), and gave readers a sense of the city’s sprawling layout and (unfortunately) its perennial humidity. Heaberlin portrays each Texas locale her characters visit with the heart of a local, and a proud one at that. It takes a special book to stir emotions for a place you left years ago; Heaberlin did that in spades for me. All character development and plotting aside, I would have read this book just for the nostalgia it stirred in my heart for my former home. If you’re not familiar with Texas, I’m here to vouch for the authenticity of Heaberlin’s portrayal of all the beauty, oddities, and soul of the state.
But speaking of the story’s characters—this was one element of the book that surprised me thoroughly, and in a very positive way. So often in crime novels, we have the “good guys” and the “bad guys”; that is, a clear delineation between “sides.” In PAPER GHOSTS, Heaberlin plays with the boundaries between the two, effectively experimenting with our notions of “guilt” and “innocence.” Our main character has spent years studying the case of her missing sister; she has compiled the strongest evidence she can, and it all points to Carl. But the more time we spend with these two characters, the more Heaberlin humanizes them. Carl isn’t just a sinister predator, though he may very well be that, too—he’s also an older man suffering from a terrible illness, weighed down by the ghosts of his past, searching for happiness in his present. He has a sense of humor and an oddly endearing personality, neither qualities that I would expect Heaberlin to grant her story’s “bad guy.” And our main character isn’t just a bereft sister, although she certainly is that, too—she’s also an obsessive and reckless young woman, so motivated by a pursuit of justice that she may be endangering the lives of those around her, and losing herself in the process. Her headstrong determination begins to feel misguided as she opens old wounds and plows ahead, against the advice of those who really do know better. Heaberlin excels at blurring these lines between “good” and “bad”; her willingness to play with these roles adds complexity and depth to the reading experience, and was without a doubt the most unexpected positive that this read delivered.
There’s much to enjoy in PAPER GHOSTS, but I would caution that the pacing of this book can be uneven at times. Again, Heaberlin’s willingness to experiment with genre standards is totally to her credit, but readers expecting a full-steam-ahead serial killer thriller will find themselves disappointed in the pacing here. PAPER GHOSTS doesn’t exactly lag - I still read it relatively quickly - but it’s important to keep in mind that it is not the kind of linear, driving novel that we might expect it to be. There are flashbacks, circuitous explanations, and a generally winding, weaving plot structure - much like the roads our main characters traverse. The road is rich with secrets to unpack, but unfortunately its ultimate conclusion did fall flat—not so much as to totally undermine my enjoyment of the read itself, but I remain unconvinced that it did service to the story. More than anything else, the story's ultimate explanation felt like a missed opportunity to capitalize upon all the unconventional and unexpected character development that occurred throughout the novel. All in all, PAPER GHOSTS might be a bit of a mixed bag, but it will work well for readers looking for an atypical, character-driven story of past traumas blended with a travelogue across Texas.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review. All opinions my own.
Hardcover: 368 pages
Publisher: Ballantine Books (May 15, 2018)
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