Because of a stupid fight with her high school boyfriend, Ellie Frame cut school one day to took sorrowful refuge in a nearby faux lighthouse, where she falls asleep. What wakes her is a series of devastating tornadoes that rip through her small rural Ohio town of Newfoundland, killing nearly a hundred people, including Ellie’s boyfriend Noah and several of her best friends. Not all the dead are gone, however; some remain behind, visible to many of the town’s residents and especially their loved ones as they hover “in the grey place” between life and death. As Ellie tries to come to grips with the deaths of her friends and her own survivor’s guilt, she learns that not all the ghosts are benevolent, and finds out, as well, that she possesses the curious ability to free them from the grey place and send them onward by filming their most meaningful stories. Those stories make up a large chunk of Christopher Barzak’s often-touching The Gone Away Place (2018) as we alternate between them and Ellie’s own personal journey of healing.
Those looking for a conventionally plotted novel might want to try elsewhere, as Barzak is less interested in action or plot than in a quietly intimate exploration of grief and loss. That’s not to say he completely eschews the idea of plot. He does present two mysteries to be uncovered — why are the ghosts remaining, and why hasn’t Noah appeared to Ellie — as well as a more traditional subplot involving sinister intentions by some of the ghosts. But the mysteries are given short shrift, weakly presented and easily resolved, such that I’d say the novel would have been better served by not bothering with them. That said, Barzak should get credit for an ending that, if it too easily resolves the more sinister of the subplots, does so in a less traditional fashion, hewing instead to a quieter, more empathic and sympathetic close to that storyline.
If the conventional “suspense” plot is the weakest element of the novel, where The Gone Away Place is strongest is in its exploration of Ellie’s response to both trauma and her own survival, and in the intimate vignettes that make up much of the story, each told in the ghost’s own voice. Those stories are often richly poignant in their recapitulation of joy and regret, of a single best moment of a life so tragically ended far too soon.
The book could easily have fallen into a pit of sentimentality, and while it may near the edge now and then, mostly Barzak avoids the potential problem. The vignettes are moving but can, at times, be a bit talky (a minor complaint) given the somewhat contrived mode of recording a video of them relating their most important story. The adults, some of whom get their own POV, are less interesting and flatter than the teens, and I’m not sure we needed the grief counselor, whose presence felt more like an author’s prop — mouthing, for instance, lines about the importance of story — than an organic character. And sometimes the metaphors or echoes can be a bit too spot-on for my liking, though that’s almost certainly not going to be an issue for the targeted YA audience. Finally, while Barzak has a lot of nicely written lines throughout the novel and does an excellent job with the monologues of the dead, he can, at times, fall victim to some clichéd language when he turns to the more descriptive segments. Again, though, most of the target audience won’t have the reading experience (probably) to note the language as well worn.
It’s easy to see why The Gone Away Place has been nominated for awards as, in structure and tone, it veers away from the same old same old and handles its theme of recovery from trauma and loss in warmly compassionate fashion. It’s the sort of book that, like the dead that grace it pages, will linger some time in its readers’ minds.