A three-legged dog, a missing boss and an IRS bureaucrat battling a mid-life crisis all converge for an offbeat mystery and personal odyssey in Lydia Millet’s quirky new novel, Ghost Lights.
The story begins at a local kennel with Hal, an IRS paper pusher, and his wife, Susan, who are rescuing Susan’s wealthy employer’s three-legged pooch after the real estate tycoon and his native guide went missing while exploring the unforgiving jungles of Belize.
Realizing how worried Susan is about her demanding boss, Hal surprisingly agrees, after a few too many drinks at a dinner party, to establish a search effort for him. More than anything, it is an excuse for Hal to get away from Susan, who is potentially cheating on him, and a chance to distance himself from his guilt about paraplegic daughter, Casey, whom he tries hard in his mind to remember as complete and whole: the Casey she was before a tragic accident broke her body in irreparable ways.
As Hal leaves for South America, his plan is not so much to look for Susan’s boss, Thomas Stern, as it is to relax for a few days and concentrate on himself. The plan changes, however, when Hal befriends an enthusiastic German family on vacation. Despite his own lack of action and disinterest in finding Stern, the Germans are determined to locate him. They help get a military search party in place, start asking questions, and half-way through the book, the mystery of Stern is solved.
Ghost Lights then turns its focus to its real agenda - a study in human behavior. Told through Hal’s perspective, the novel is filled with questions that most everyone asks at some point like, “Have I wasted my life?” “Did I make the right choices?” and “How should I have handled things differently?” But Ghost Lights also digs deep into Hal’s soul through internal monologues and exposes his personal fears, dark sense of humor, and revelations about life.
The only problem with Hal as the narrator is that he is more of a laid-back character. He waits for things to happen to him. He hangs like a puppet on invisible strings until someone steers him in a particular direction. This lack of motivation makes the reader feel slightly detached from him and his relationships with the other characters. This works both for and against Millet. She does a great job of making you feel Hal’s often dim outlook on life, but at the same time, that detachment may turn off some readers.
Published in 2011, Ghost Lights, is the second offering in a trilogy that began with 2008’s How the Dead Dream. If you happen read Ghost Lights as a stand-alone book, don’t worry. You will not feel lost or left out if you didn’t read How the Dead Dream first. It may, however, make you want to go back and read the first book for more background about the characters.
Ghost Lights does contain some common themes that often occur in Millet’s books, including environmentalism and its relationship with nature and humanity’s connection with animals. In fact, dogs appear literally and symbolically in both the beginning and ending scenes of the novel.
An author of six prior novels and a collection of short stories, Love In Infant Monkeys, for which she was a Pulitzer Prize finalist, Millet plans to conclude her trilogy with the release next fall of Magnificence, which will be told from the viewpoint of Hal’s wife, Susan.
In the meantime, if you like Ghost Lights, consider reading State of Wonder by Ann Patchett, which also revolves around an intriguing mystery in a jungle setting.
About the Author
Amy Morris is a librarian technical assistant at the Westport Branch. She earned a B.A. in English, with an emphasis in creative writing, from Avila University. Besides reading and writing, Amy enjoys traveling, art, being creative, and spending time with her family.