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by Julia Heaberlin
Ballantine, May 2018
343 pages
ISBN: 080417802X

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An unnamed woman is searching for the truth about her sister who has been missing since the woman was twelve years old, twelve years ago. Psychiatric consultants say she is borderline obsessive-compulsive. That aside, she has located the man she believes killed her sister. He is in a nursing home with the beginning stages of dementia. A well-known art photographer, Carl Louis Feldman, joins the woman (whom we learn at the end of the novel is named Grace) in a road trip she has designed to visit the homes of three missing women she feels Carl murdered.

PAPER GHOSTS is told in the voice of Grace, an unreliable narrator if I ever met one. Carl is also not what he seemed initially. He does not behave like a person in the throes of dementia, something Grace learns as they begin their drive across Texas, from the Piney woods in the east to the Chinati Mountains of the Big Bend. Their trip weaves back and forth along this giant terrain, resting a while in Austin, that fabled city of laid back slackers. They adopt a sick dog Carl names Barfly and a three legged cat named Baloney. Carl escapes twice, only to return when he feels like it. He steals her money and saves her bacon several times.

While Grace sees herself in control of Carl, he is clearly her master. She is trying to ferret out the truth but Carl answers her insistent questions with demands he calls conditions of his compliance in this journey. He also answers with koan-like hints.

Grace is afraid of him, although she has become a trained handler of villains and their devices. She carries a Glock, just in case. No door remains locked with Carl; she is unable to protect herself from his wiles.

Exploring Texas is a very long truck ride and everyone, including the reader, flags at times. But the complexity of the plot, which interweaves the photos and stories behind Carl's haunting photographs into the journey continues to intrigue the reader. Grace is on the edge of terror a good deal of the time but the reader can't help beginning to trust Carl as much as Grace.

Julia Heaberlin is the mistress of plot twists, as well as a fine creator of fascinating characters. The mystery of the sister's death is solved cleverly. Carl returns to the home, but at his death, Carl delivers one final tease for both Grace and the reader.

Susan Hoover is a playwright, independent producer and retired college English teacher. She lives in Nova Scotia.

Reviewed by Susan Hoover, May 2018

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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