On a snowy December night in Columbus, Ohio, Mark Fife is disturbed by a woman who looks at him through a coffee-shop window. He is planning to ask his girlfriend, Allison, to marry him. He is settled: “He had come all the way into his new self.” Gradually, we learn that this surface calm masks inner turmoil. Mark’s first life fell apart spectacularly when his seven-year-old son Brendan died after a fall down the stairs. Mark has been through hell and survived, but fate hasn’t finished with him. He begins to unravel. A sip of wine after years of sobriety, secretive phone calls to Chloe, his mentally fragile ex-wife: the woman is a catalyst that reels him back to his old life.
The tone of You Came Back is earnest, weaving Mark’s existential questioning into the unfolding tale. Where do the dead go? Is death sleep or annihilation? How do you suffer unbearably and live? The woman who disturbs Mark’s life, Connie, turns out to be living in his old house, and she tells him that her nine-year old son, Jacob, is haunted by Brendan’s ghost.
Set in the first decade of the twenty-first century, Coake’s novel uses neo-Gothic tropes to merge the uncanny into the mundane. A major appeal of the novel is the way it makes connections between such disparate elements as the collapse of the housing market and the patter of footsteps across an empty room on a dark night. The novel is viewed entirely from Mark’s perspective, and we follow his increasingly painful search for the truth in a way that’s all too modern and entirely plausible. An unbeliever, he trawls internet forums, reads online tales of haunted houses and spectral sightings and gradually withdraws from his friends and family until “[his] own body seemed to have vanished.” Connie contacts Trudy Weill, a medium who specialises in bringing comfort to the bereaved. With Mark and Chloe, Connie and Jacob, she will conduct a séance to “guide [Brendan] to his rest”.
You Came Back is a strong debut that brings to mind David Foster Wallace’s notion that “every love story is also a ghost story”. The imaginative structure lends coherence to a tale that is part ghost story, part love story, and paced like a thriller. The thirty-two chapters are enclosed in six sections with fairy-tale-like titles such as “The Little Boy Who Used to Live Here”, and these are book-ended with mirrored opening and closing sections titled, ‘His New Life’. Travelling from winter to springtime, despair to hope, Coake reveals that the past haunts the present because “we keep the dead close.”