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Onyx reviews: The Ghost in Love by Jonathan Carroll

The first indication that you're in Jonathan Carroll land is the appearance of a talking dog. Carroll gets that out of the way quickly in The Ghost in Love, as the opening chapter features the eponymous ghost and Pilot, the dog, deep in conversation. All animals have the ability to communicate with all other animals, and with ghosts, Carroll stipulates. The ghost is cooking dinner as they talk, conjuring the requisite ingredients out of thin air. "When a person dies, then they're taught the real structure of things...Once you have that understanding, it's easy to make things," the ghost reveals.

Her name is Ling, and she is Ben Gould's ghost, sent to tidy up any outstanding issues after Ben's death. However, Ben isn't dead—though he's supposed to be. On the day that he and his girlfriend, German Landis, got Pilot from the shelter, Ben slipped and hit his head on the sidewalk. Something has gone wrong at a higher plane of existence—at least that's what the Angel of Death tells Ling about the situation. Said angel, by the way, presents itself in the form of a partially eaten plate of scrambled eggs.

With a Jonathan Carroll novel, such matters are par for the course. Readers are invited to go along for the ride without asking too many questions. For the last several books, starting primarily with The Wooden Sea, Carroll has been musing out loud about metaphysical issues, such as the nature of the universe. He's also interested in exploring the concept that a person is the sum of his (or her) previous selves.

Ben is unaware of his ghost, but things have been strange for him since the accident. For example, he's experiencing the life of another woman, Danielle Voyles, who also should have died, but didn't. His concerns over his mental stability have put a strain on his relationship with German. The only thing that is keeping them in touch is Pilot, who they have agreed to share despite their broken relationship.

The Angel of Death reappears in a pizzeria and is promptly stabbed by a vagrant. Ben subsequently becomes aware of his ghost and begins to understand Pilot's speech. Danielle, on the other hand, can't perceive Ben at all. German can't understand any of this, and thinks that Ben is having her on. She is a suitable stand-in for the reader, the mundane character forced to deal with all of this strangeness, but she is also the supreme optimist, a force of positive energy in the universe.

Both Danielle and Ben become untethered in their own lives, revisiting themselves as younger (and in one case, older) versions of themselves. The younger versions are curious about their individual fates, but the more important matter is what Ben and Danielle can rediscover about themselves by talking to their earlier selves. Though they each have typically vague memories of the past, for their younger selves events are fresh and vivid. For Danielle, her alternate selves are exactly as she was at those ages. Ben is somewhat different—his voyage of discovery is more about the different types of people who make him the man that he is, some good and some bad. He gets to see his good aspects from German's perspective—the reasons why she loves him. He is an ordinary man, though, so there are many unlikable components to his personality as well. He has to embrace them all.

Make no bones about it—The Ghost in Love is a strange, strange book. It's easy (despite the book's title) to lose sight of the fact that it is fundamentally a love story, with German Landis at the center of one of the most unorthodox triangles ever imagined. Whether or not readers agree with Carroll's metaphysics, though, if they are willing to check disbelief at the door and go along for the ride, Carroll won't disappoint.

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