Here’s what I wrote about ‘Petra’s Ghost’ immediately after I finished it, a week ago.
‘Petra’s Ghost’ is an emotionally powerful book about guilt and forgiveness. It follows a recently widowed man as he walks the Camino de Santiago. Burdened by guilt over his wife’s death, he begins to doubt his own sanity and we are left to judge how much of his reality we share.
In the intervening days, the book has been haunting my imagination, showing me how real the journey along the Camino had felt to me and how invested I had become in the fate of the characters and most of all of how this portrayal of the challenges and possibilities of forgiveness had touched me.
Some of the power of ‘Petra’s Ghost’ comes from how well described the journey along the Camino is. This isn’t a romanticised travelogue or tourist promo. It’s more in the nature of a remembered experience. All the geographical, historical and cultural reference points are there, but they are subordinate to the sense of the power of the Camino over the pilgrims. It speaks of walking along on a shared path. Of stepping outside of your day to day life. Of seeking… something. Self-knowledge? Change? A hope for the future? A release from the past?. The Camino calls pilgrims to understand what they really want from it and what they’re prepared to give to get it.
Then there is the power of the main character, Daniel who is at once a likeable, down-to-earth man and a man whose sense of self is being eroded by grief and guilt about the death of his wife, to the point where he and we doubt his sanity. He is a man unable to stand still or move forward. Lost to himself. Carrying his wife’s ashes with him but not sure what to do with them. A man who is in motion because he cannot decide where to stand.
I found Daniel an easy man to identify with. He’s an almost secular Catholic and yet he’s committed himself to a spiritual pilgrimage. When he’s asked by an American travelling companion if he’s a devout Catholic he says:
“I’m not one for Mass every Sunday, if that’s what you’re saying.” The last time Daniel had been to a full Mass was the funeral. He and Petra had gone to church only irregularly. They liked the idea of taking time out to pay their respects to God, but they enjoyed sleeping in on a Sunday morning.
When his companion presses further and asks if he believes in everything the Catholic Church says, he gives a reply that I’ve heard many times:
“Most of it.”
“Most of it?”
“Sure, there are things I disagree with.”
His answer to the follow-up question was not one I’d heard before but it sums up what being a Catholic means to many of the people I grew up with who, unlike me, have not ‘lapsed’ into atheism:
“If you disagree with it, why are you still a Catholic?”
“Are there things the U.S. government is after doing that you don’t agree with?” he asks.
“And yet, you don’t stop being an American, now do you?”
So here’s a man who knows himself. Who is normally comfortable in his own skin. A man who loved his wife. A man who has left the family farm in Ireland and made a life for himself as an Engineer in America. The thing I kept asking myself was: why is a man like this making a pilgrimage along the Camino?
A lot of the book is about Daniel finding the answer to that question.
A lot of what makes the book stand out is the novel way in which this is achieved.
Instead of offering deep internal meditations or curated discussions of spiritual themes with fellow pilgrims, the author gave me something much more interesting: ghosts.
As Daniel journeys along the Camino, carrying his wife’s ashes like a penance, he starts to feel that he is being stalked by something violent and malevolent. Daniel isn’t entirely sure whether he can trust his own eyes or whether he is losing his mind.
These instances grow more frequent and more threatening and Daniel starts to lose his grip on himself. He stops having the regular Skype sessions with his sister that have kept him tethered to his family in Ireland by regular. He admits to himself that he is seeing things that others cannot see. He starts to feel that the guilty secret he is carrying with him about the death of his wife is costing him his sanity.
I admired the way I was kept guessing about whether the ghosts were real or only in Daniel’s head and whether or not the answer made a difference.
There was no denying the reality of Daniel’s grief and guilt and need for forgiveness.
I won’t reveal the ending here, except to say that it worked beautifully, making sense of everything I’d seen up to that point. I left the book feeling that I’d shared Daniel’s journey not just along the Camino but towards his ability to forgive himself and that it was a journey I believed in.
‘Petra’s Ghost’ is hard to label. It doesn’t fit easily into a genre. It sets out to do something difficult and chooses a unique path to do it. It uses an unreliable narrator to show us and him the truth and it does the whole thing with wit and compassion. I recommend it to you.