head full of ghosts book coverReviewed by Nina Longfield

A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay is a disturbing tour de force. This is the story of the Barrett family in northern Massachusetts. The Barretts are suffering from a malady of personal misfortune. John Barrett lost his long-time job and isn’t successful in new employment endeavors. John and his wife, Sarah, are experiencing difficulties in their marriage. There is the financial mishaps creating tension, but greater than that is the declining emotional and physical health of their family.

The Barrett’s oldest daughter, Marjorie, is the subject of the family’s emotional devastation. Marjorie is sullen and withdrawn; a seemingly normal teenager until her moods turn excessively darker. She admits to hearing voices. She is seen as a threat to the family’s wellbeing and especially a menace to the security of her younger sister Merry (Meredith). Eight-year-old Merry doesn’t understand what her older sister is dealing with but she knows things have changed, as they no longer make up stories as they used to. Marjorie’s stories are now dark and scary.

As the atmosphere in the Barrett household grows bleaker, John turns away from medicine and looks to religion to return his family to normal. This creates greater friction throughout the family unit. Impending financial ruin forces the Barretts to open their house to a reality television production that follows Marjorie’s increasing madness and approaching exorcism.

Tremblay has a way of building tension using the most common of daily chores and occurrences. Even though the narration’s current situation is safe, Tremblay creates anticipation filled with dread for what is coming. I felt like I was always trying to peek around a corner to catch a glimpse of what might be there.

A Head Full of Ghosts has two narrators. Merry Barrett is a young woman living a quiet inconspicuous life. It is fifteen years after events within the Barrett household and Merry is telling her childhood story to best-selling author Rachel Neville. The second narrator is Merry at eight years old as she lives the day-to-day horror that her family is experiencing. Both narrators, the adult and the child, are somewhat unreliable. The child tells the story from what she sees and experiences; she admits to embellishing some events in attempts for attention. She is only eight. The adult Merry seems to have something to hide. There is a sense that she is carrying too much guilt for what transpired fifteen years ago. It takes time for her story to come out leaving Rachel Neville and the reader stunned.

I finished Tremblay’s A Head Full of Ghosts a few days ago and it is still sitting in my forethoughts. I suppose you can say the story is haunting me. I’m contemplating this novel. Tremblay’s writing is authentic. The story mesmerizing. The narrator, both child and adult, is likeable and easily forgiven for admitted exaggeration. A Head Full of Ghosts was difficult to put down and is not easy to let go after reaching the end. Descriptions of A Head Full of Ghosts suggested it is a thriller full of drama, suspense, and horror, yet this novel incorporates so much more.

In the end, Paul Tremblay has created a heart-wrenching tale that seems all too relevant in today’s world. It is a testament to the extremes one is driven to when hope is elusive. A Head Full of Ghosts has a solid and satisfying ending, yet it also leaves lurking consideration as I ponder other paths the Barrett family could have taken.

Rating: ★★★★★ 

Nina Longfield is a writer living in Oregon’s fertile wine country. When she is not reading or writing in her spare time, Nina enjoys hiking in the hills surrounding her cabin.

Review copy was provided free of any obligation by William Morrow. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.