Book Review: Paper Ghosts – Julia Heaberlin

4 Stars

Blurb: Carl Louis Feldman is an old man who was once a celebrated photographer. That was before he was tried for the murder of a young woman and acquitted. Before his admission to a care home for dementia. Now his daughter has come to see him, to take him on a trip. Only she’s not his daughter and, if she has her way, he’s not coming back . .

Because Carl’s past has finally caught up with him. The young woman driving the car is convinced her passenger is guilty, and that he’s killed other young women. Including her sister Rachel. Now they’re following the trail of his photographs, his clues, his alleged crimes. To see if he remembers any of it. Confesses to any of it. To discover what really happened to Rachel.

Has Carl truly forgotten what he did or is he just pretending? Perhaps he’s guilty of nothing and she’s the liar.

Either way in driving him into the Texan wilderness she’s taking a terrible risk. For if Carl really is a serial killer, she’s alone in the most dangerous place of all . 

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‘I look back and think that’s the day, the moment, she was cursed.
When she was nineteen, she disappeared, like a lasso dropped from the clouds and snatched her up.
I know it was the day I became afraid of things.’

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You know that feeling when you’ve just been on a roller coast and you need a few minutes to compose yourself? That’s how I felt after finishing this book.

The narrator of the story had her life turned upside down when she was young due to the disappearance of her older sister. Since that day, the narrator has been trying to figure out what happened to her sister. She is convinced that Carl Feldman, a photographer who was previously tried and acquitted for the murder of another young women, is a serial killer who murdered her sister, along with various other girls whose bodies have never be found.

The only problem is, when the narrator tracks down Carl, he is living in a halfway house for criminals…. And he suffers from dementia. In an attempt to help him remember, she pretends to be his daughter and takes him on a road trip to visit the various murder locations that she believes he is responsible for. Throughout the book, she is plagued with the question: Does Carl really have dementia, or is he playing her for a fool?

At first, I thought the premise of the book was a bit far-fetched. Would someone really get away with pretending to be a dementia sufferer’s daughter and taking him on a road trip? I really hope not but after a while, I didn’t really care, because it was such an addictive read. I really couldn’t figure out whether Carl had dementia or whether he was more messed up than we originally thought and was just pretending he had dementia, so he could carry on living his life without facing up to the consequences of his crimes.

I have one gripe about this book. I didn’t really like the narrator. She’s spent the majority of her life waiting for the moment when she’s alone with her sister’s killer. She spent months in vigorous training to prepare for her road trip with a potential serial killer. Her ‘trainer’ taught her how to hold her breath for a prolonged time, she’s been blindfolded in various places and been left to find her escape route, she’s basically trained for all the worst possible outcomes of what could happen to her. Yet, she is so careless. She is always leaving the most important items out of her reach. She leaves her gun in the car, she forgets her flashlight, etc… I found it so frustrating, but I feel like I’m being a bit harsh on her. It’s not as if she’s a trained assassin. And it’s impossible to plan for EVERY scenario but at some points, her carelessness just felt a bit too convenient.

Aside from my very minor grumble about the narrator, it was an amazing read and I’d recommend it to anyone. This book was a huge emotional roller coast. At some points I felt sorry for Carl. But then I had to stop and think: Am I feeling sorry for a dementia sufferer? Or a callous serial killer? It kept me guessing until the very last page. I was so sure I knew how it would all end. And I was hoping I was right because I wanted the ending I had imagined (or so I thought). But when it all unravelled, I was shocked. Even more than that, I was surprised to feel a surge of relief when I realised that I had been wrong.  
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Thank you to Netgalley and the publisher (Penguin UK) for providing me with an ARC in exchange for an honest review. Paper Ghost is due to be released TOMORROW! I’d definitely recommend that you grab a copy!

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