Ghosts of Bergen County
by Dana Cann
Tin House, 2016
As a writer of supernatural fiction myself, I jumped at the chance to pick up and read Ghosts of Bergen County. Now, having finished it, I can safely say that it did not disappoint. In Ghosts, Dana Cann has created a (literally) haunting story about loss, grief, and the ways in which people cope and often grow apart after a life-changing tragedy strikes.
Ghosts of Bergen County is a story told from three different perspectives: Gil and Mary Beth Ferko, a couple still trying to move past the hit-and-run death of their infant daughter Catherine, and Jen Yoder, an aspiring actress still wrestling with an incident years prior to the book in which she watched a playwright plummet from the top of a building to his death. Cann imbues each of these characters with a distinctly unique point of view, and getting to see them from each other’s’ perspective is a treat. I found myself the most drawn to Mary Beth’s storyline, in which she meets a young girl who seems to live in the woods and be able to disappear and reappear at will. Through Mary Beth’s intense grief, and her sense of responsibility for Catherine’s death, I came to sympathize with her and worry about any other tragedy that might befall her. Likewise, Jen’s story is equally compelling. At first, I was unsure of where she fit into this story about a married couple, but even she admits that she feels Gil and Mary Beth’s loss parallels her own. In talking to Gil about the hit-and-run, she is able to understand her own feelings about the death she bore witness to. Jen’s father, a doctor who formerly wrote nonfiction books about haunted locations, was also my favorite minor character in the novel.
Gil was, in fact, the only point of view character who I struggled to sympathize with at certain points. His grief over Catherine’s death is less raw than Mary Beth’s, more of a numbness that pervades his narrative, and I occasionally found myself wondering why he makes the decisions he does in the book. But in Gil’s side of the narrative, Cann comes at grief from a much different angle. While Mary Beth deals with the loss of her daughter by imagining (or fortuitously meeting) the ghost of another little girl who she can play with, Gil finds solace in real world distractions, such as doing heroin and helping Jen shoplift. “You didn’t need to lose a child to lose a marriage,” Cann exposits, but as husband and wife become more and more caught up in their own coping methods, the wedge that begins to slowly drive between them is clear.
Midway through the novel, Jen muses on the idea of “fatal [as a] derivation of fate”. If Ghosts of Bergen County had a mission statement, I believe that would be it. Dana Cann has crafted three intricately twined narratives about people whose shared sense of grief brings them together and tears them apart, allowing the reader with an almost voyeuristic look at the coping methods of three very different, very damaged people.