Ghosts of the Missing
- By Kathleen Donohoe
- Mariner Books
- 320 pp.
- Reviewed by Heidi Mastrogiovanni
- February 13, 2021
An Upstate New York home turned writers' colony anchors this smart, atmospheric tale of loss.
Manderly. Tara. 221B Baker Street. To this pantheon of iconic dwellings in literature — locations that are as much characters as any person in the story — must be added Moye House, the emotional center of Kathleen Donohoe’s Ghosts of the Missing.
In a prologue set a few years before the Civil War, Cassius Moye, then a boy, is introduced. There is an eerie feeling as he sees a young redheaded woman running in the woods near his home. Subsequent chapters begin with headings bearing a name, many of them “ADAIR,” and often a time (some are set in 2010, others in 1994/95, and several in the 19th century). Adair’s sections are in the first person. She is the protagonist, and it is her worldview that permeates.
Adair, who has red hair, is living in modern-day Brooklyn, working as a temp to support her career as an artist. Her description of this life will resonate with any creative person who has found themselves in similar circumstances, and it is exquisitely expressed by Donohoe. In response to an astonished assessment that the work in her sketchpad is very good, Adair reflects:
“Her obvious surprise almost qualified as a backhanded compliment. You can draw? You’re an artist? The girl who answers our phones? The girl who spent an entire eight-hour workday shredding our old files? But I was used to the amazement when my temporary coworkers saw me in a new context. It was as if they’d learned the Xerox machine had a lovely singing voice.”
Early on, readers are told that Adair is an orphan; only later does the author share why. Donohoe unspools her story in a calm, hypnotic style that spans generations of characters and decades of events, most of them centered around the Moye family, of which Adair is a member.
Moye House stands in the small town of Culleton, NY, and is the home where Cassius Moye, Adair’s distant ancestor, grew up. It is now a writers’ colony. In the town, a girl named Rowan disappeared in 1995, when she was 12 years old. That girl, readers learn, was Adair’s best friend from childhood. Now, years later, Adair sometimes sees Rowan and hears her speaking.
In the chapters devoted to Cassius and to any character other than Adair, the narration is in the third person. Donohoe’s confident approach to this shift, and the quiet mystery and calm romanticism of her plot, make this technique work. There is a fairytale air to much of this book and a level of enchantment throughout.
In Cassius’ time, his family’s foundry is Culleton’s main employer. The red-haired girl he sees running in the woods is a maid in his family’s large house. Though Cassius’ mother calls all the Irish girls who work for her “Katie,” this young woman’s name is Helen.
Elements of Helen’s history echo through the novel: the sound of bells; a family curse; the ability to see ghosts. Helen is able to glimpse a soldier from the American Revolution who is lost in the woods. This is lyrically described in its effect on Cassius: “Helen spoiled him for the speech of those who saw only the living.”
Cassius enlists to fight in the Civil War as a way of leaving home. But when he is captured, imprisoned for two years, and released with tuberculosis, he must return there to heal. A disappointment, but “the war had given him enough to write about.” The result is fame, and a famous short story, “The Lost Girl.” Soon, Gotham literati come to Culleton to find the esteemed author. Thus, Moye House’s time as a writers’ retreat begins.
Generations later, when the young Adair’s parents die and she is taken in by a poet uncle, Moye House becomes her home. Her words in describing it are themselves like poetry:
“Moye House glimmered, making the fine lines of the stones appear like gray and blue threads, as though the house had not been built but sewn…In books, old mansions heal the displaced children who are banished to them. Wardrobes are portals to other universes. Treasure maps are discovered in attics…For whatever the children have lost, the house gives something back.”
Numerous characters populate Ghosts of the Missing. Some boast an extensive backstory, others are summed up briefly, but each leaves a vivid impression. Regarding Evelyn, the mother of Rowan and a suspect in her disappearance, Adair observes she is a woman “so pretty that she seemed out of place in everyday life.”
And when Adair first meets Rowan, she describes her as “the girl in your class the teacher calls on after three kids have already given the wrong answer and she needs to move on,” instantly reminding readers of similar kids from their own classes. Recognition in just a few well-chosen words.
As Moye House’s history unfolds, with chapters moving back and forth across time, mesmerizing information is shared. Names are presented, relationships slowly revealed. The descendants of Cassius Moye form a tapestry of loss and hope and wonder as the narrative takes on a magical quality through Donohoe’s prose.
Adair’s quest to discover what happened to Rowan sets much of the tone of Ghosts of the Missing, but it’s only part of the story. Indeed, Donohoe melds styles with ease, calling to mind both the classic detective novel The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins and “The Twilight Zone.”
Ghosts of the Missing is greater than the sum of its parts, though that sum is impressive. It is, above all else, an intelligent, evocative tale of grief and loss. When Adair asks one of the most significant people in her life if his sighting of a dead friend might have been his imagination, his response will resonate with anyone who’s ever ached for a deceased loved one: “If he were visiting from my imagination, I would have had him stay much longer.”
[Editor's note: This review originally ran in 2020.]
Heidi Mastrogiovanni is the author of the comedic novel Lala Pettibone’s Act Two (finalist for the Foreword Reviews Book of the Year Awards) and the sequel, Lala Pettibone: Standing Room Only (Amberjack Publishing). With James Napoli (The Official Dictionary of Sarcasm), she is co-host of the “Movies Not Movies” comedy podcast. A dedicated animal welfare advocate, Heidi lives in Los Angeles with her musician husband and their rescued senior dogs.