Julia Heaberlin tackles reality versus fiction in ‘Paper Ghosts’

Title: Paper Ghosts
Author: Julia Heaberlin
Genre: Suspense
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Source: eARC via NetGalley
Length: 348p
Publishing Date15 May 2018


“The fact is, the best way to disappear is to blend into the usual, irritation stream of creatures.”

A1cqc9TJfNLThe main character of Paper Ghosts just does that in order to try and solve the mystery of her sister’s kidnapping and murder. Since she was twelve years old, all she’s ever wanted was to find out what happened to her sister. Now she has her chance at finding the answer to her sister’s disappearance, but the disappearance of other children as well.

Fully believing Carl Louis Feldman, a renowned documentary photographer who may or may not have dementia, is the man responsible, the main character decides to break him out of his halfway house, claiming to be his long-lost daughter, and takes him on a road trip across Texas. Her hope is that either memory or guilt will help reveal the truth about what really happened.

“I’m holding hands with the past–the stars above me that died light years ago, the dinosaurs and Indians who are cobwebs in the sand, the girls Carl killed.”

While Paper Ghost has been shelved as a book of suspense, I’d argue that it’s more of a psychological thriller. While there are suspenseful moments, the real thrilling elements of the book come in as we explore the minds of the main characters. Heaberlin makes the reader question how they define trust, how much they trust memory, and how much we think we know about ourselves. What lengths would we go to find out the truth? There are no clear “good” or “bad” guys in this book: each character is using the other for their own purposes, and those purposes aren’t clear. The relationship between this strange man and the girl pretending to be his daughter

Literary in style, Heaberlin’s Paper Ghosts weaves real crime details with imagined ones ingrained in strong local setting descriptions. So this book isn’t just a mystery of “Did Carl actually do these things?” but also a love letter to Texas, the magic of road trips, and the magic of the finding out the truth–and the complicated emotions that come with those.

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