Zachary and Muriel move into a farmhouse in rural Vermont. Unbeknownst to them the house is still inhabited by the ghost of Simon, the previous inhabitant. Simon spends his days replaying his marriage in his own mind, while also engaging in occasionally intimate observation of the new homeowners. But soon the crisis of a missing child, a local eleven-year-old, threatens the tenuous domestic equilibrium.
Howard Norman writes elegant prose—but really, that's because everything about Howard Norman is elegant ... Many a domestic-thriller writer would have taken this fabulous conceit and used it in constructing an unbearably taut tale of psychological angst. But Norman is after different game—not better, necessarily, just different. The Ghost Clause has myriad elements that could spark mystery, investigation, or terror ... Simon is a far from perfect spouse, novelist, or narrator, but he hasn't given up on life's goodness and pleasures. As he guides you through a season in Adamant, you may find yourself dreaming about taking a sabbatical up north.
...the whodunit plot operates at a simmer ... Norman is striving to change our concept of the afterlife—not as something that is the opposite of living, but its palimpsest, its echo. Death delivers us not to heaven or hell but to the library. And aren’t books, like ghosts, echoes of our lives? In tweaking our conception of the afterlife, Norman is abandoning the ghost story as we’ve been conditioned to understand it ... The melancholic mood thickens in The Ghost Clause, as Simon, Lorca, Zachary, and Muriel contemplate their losses (the missing child, the miscarriage, Simon himself). Yet the novel’s trajectory also ultimately stabilizes the mood, as Corrine’s case is resolved and the nature of Simon’s presence becomes clearer. This isn’t the same thing as saying the novel has a happy ending...it simply acknowledges the push and pull of joy and loss.
Certainly these elements—erotic, comic, oddball, even genuinely unsettling—are more than seductive. If only The Ghost Clause built on them to deliver what it at first seems to promise: a spooky and heartfelt tale of love and loss, of two marriages linked by the bones of an old house. Instead, bafflingly, Norman decides to throw a lot of other, less engaging, plotlines into the mix ... the central relationships barely change; the farmhouse itself is dropped for pages on end; so many threads that ought to be satisfyingly woven together seem to miss their connections. And the tangents don’t help ... It’s a pity, because Norman’s evocation of that emotionally and temporally elastic space between life and death, the 'ongoingness,' is hypnotic. I’d have liked fewer wacky diversions and more of the shivery, disruptive unease that worked so well in the opening chapter and almost brought me to tears in Norman’s haunting final paragraph.