cover image A Face at the Window

A Face at the Window

Dennis McFarland. Broadway Books, $25 (320pp) ISBN 978-0-553-06694-4

To describe McFarland's subtly plotted, eerily plausible third novel as a sophisticated ghost story does it an injustice, because it is as securely based in the real world as any well-written narrative whose characters contemplate existential questions. The narrator, Cookson Selway, is a flawed man with some unatoned-for sins in his past: having endured a difficult childhood in a dysfunctional Southern family, he enjoyed years of cocaine abuse and alcoholism that tested the love of his wife, Ellen, a mystery writer, and their daughter, Josie. Now comfortably retired and reaching middle age, Cook seems to have survived his escapades unscathed. But when he and Ellen check into the small Willerton Hotel in London, he begins to experience paranormal visions involving a teenaged girl who died in a fall from a window there 50 years earlier. Moreover, he seems to be reverting to the verbally abusive man he once was, and soon Ellen leaves him. Cook then indulges in a marathon interaction with the supernatural world, intermittently calling forth three ghosts and (since one has a doppelganger) four personalities, each of whom, he gradually realizes, represents some part of himself. Disoriented and surly, he refuses offers of help--until he precipitates a tragedy. While McFarland is adroit at conveying the vertiginous atmosphere of the paranormal world, Cook is never a man one warms to and, under the sway of his obsession, becomes increasingly disagreeable. There's no conventional redemption here. But McFarland (whose previous two novels, The Music Room and School for the Blind, were widely praised) handles his risky premise with intelligence and steely control. In finely honed prose that never succumbs to melodrama, he fashions a fiercely honest exploration of one man's tortured soul. $50,000 ad/promo; author tour. (Mar.)