Eireann Corrigan’s Ordinary Ghosts is a book without an audience (please forgive the paradox since at least I read it, but you should get the idea after the summary).
The Simon family is having a bad year. The only people living in the household are the stern father and Emil, the 16 year old “spare” (as in having two sons the “heir” and the “spare”). The other two members of the nuclear family are the mother (dead of cancer) and the brother, Ethan, who just disappeared leaving a postcard. Against this backdrop, Emil finds something in his brother’s room. It is the legendary skeleton-key for Caramoor Academy all boy’s school. The idea is that the keeper of the key has to keep it entirely secret, commit some sort of humongous and totally memorable prank, then find the next worthy keeper.
Emil spends almost two weeks split between his home and the attic of the main building while his father is out of town. He uses the wanderings to determine the extent of the key’s reach. During these wanderings he meets Jade. Their relationship develops as you turn the pages. Interspersed here and there are flair ups of Emil’s best friend Soma—the typical comedian to Emil’s straight guy routine.
The adventure stops being about the prank and is all about how Emil is coping or not coping with the diminishment of the number of people in his house and what this means. These lead to some interesting areas, but if you decide to read it, I will end the summary here.
During the 325 pages nearly every word you can and cannot say on television get thrown around. Naturally there is drinking (these are American boys) and drug use, “weed” and the mention of “blow.”
This is the segue to the reason Ordinary Ghosts is a book without an audience. First it isn’t for girls of any age; the argot is entirely late teen boy. It isn’t for Emil’s age set because 1) they are too busy doing the stuff in the book to bother with reading it and 2) the kids that age reading it probably wish they were committing the actions in the book and avoid reading it because it would just hammer home that they aren’t in fact doing it. It isn’t for parents because they would likely be even more concerned about their sons than they were before. So that only leaves book collectors and people like me who also collect (and read) young adult fiction (J.K. Rowling is the biggest enabler of an addiction in history who didn’t actually hand you the opium pipe).
Emil is generally likeable as a narrator and character. The language seems natural to him and not pretentious, so I have no problems here. Apart from the lack of an audience, the book lacks a truly controlling theme. The attempt to create a prank (mind you there is very little mention of any previous pranks) fails. He finds a book on ghosts tied to the school, but this is a red herring and if you run into it, you will see it for what it is, so this gives absolutely nothing away. The attempt to forge a relationship with Jade creates a cocoon for a decent level of imagination and fantasy, but is not enough of a metaphor to keep the story going. The home life would then be the obvious choice—nope, that fails too.
No, every book/story has to have a controlling metaphor (I love minimalist music which relies on no true theme or development; however there is still tonal control even if it doesn’t follow any of its predecessors). This, then, means that Ordinary Ghosts is little more than a catalog or masturbation fantasies wrapped in foul language (not so much for me—I am definitely no prude, but it is odd for a young adult book published by a house as supposedly esteemed as Scholastic to be so “frank”) floating in a balloon heading in no real direction.
Finally, it was a slog. However, I had read well past the halfway point without truly realizing it (hoping something would happen) so finishing it was important if for no other reason than to see if something would happen at the end.
Belle Lettres literature is filled with stories that don't really go anywhere but still speak to some facet oflife, language, and often war and love. But a teen book trying to do the same thing (and failing) was not the best way to spend any time on.
Before the recommendation, I have this to say. I read books intended for young of this age for two reasons. The first is that I am writing something of my own (an adult novel) that requires I know a decent amount of the fungible language that passes for teen English; Ghosts was really no help here. The second reason, and the one that will last beyond writing the novel (published or otherwise) is for what I call SAT words. Peter Abrahams is fantastic at putting in rarer words likely to be on the SAT in a way that doesn’t call undue attention to it. Ghosts misses on this front too.
I can think of no one for whom I would recommend this.