By Lauren Oliver
Wealthy Richard Walker has just died, leaving behind his country house full of rooms packed with the detritus of a lifetime. His estranged family—bitter ex-wife Caroline, troubled teenage son Trenton, and unforgiving daughter Minna—have arrived for their inheritance.
But the Walkers are not alone. Prim Alice and the cynical Sandra, long dead former residents bound to the house, linger within its claustrophobic walls. Jostling for space, memory, and supremacy, they observe the family, trading barbs and reminiscences about their past lives. Though their voices cannot be heard, Alice and Sandra speak through the house itself—in the hiss of the radiator, a creak in the stairs, the dimming of a light bulb.
The living and dead are each haunted by painful truths that will soon surface with explosive force. When a new ghost appears, and Trenton begins to communicate with her, the spirit and human worlds collide—with cataclysmic results.
Elegantly constructed and brilliantly paced, Rooms is an enticing and imaginative ghost story and a searing family drama that is as haunting as it is resonant.
I am always intrigued by a ghost story because I want to see how the author will handle the supernatural. What are the rules of being a ghost? What can they do? What can’t they do? Can anyone hear or see them? Why are they there?
This is especially interesting when ghosts are narrators. In Rooms, there are multiple narrators – two ghosts stuck in a house they each lived in (and died in) at one point and also three living family members. I didn’t expect to read the perspectives of the living.
Alice and Sandra have been ghosts in the house where Richard Walker died (not really, he died in a hospital so isn’t tethered to the house) and watch his ex-wife, daughter and son return to the house to put his affairs in order. Caroline is still a drunk, his daughter Minna is a depressed mother with a young daughter named Amy and Trenton is now a teenager prone to sulking and covering his face with his hair. Sandra finds them all very entertaining but Alice is disheartened to see how little Caroline and Minna have changed and how much Trenton has changed. She expected the sweet little boy she watched grow up in the house before Caroline and Richard divorced. The sullen teenager with a limp is a stranger to Alice.
Each chapter provides a character’s point of view in a generally linear fashion over the handful of days they are at Richard’s home. Caroline continues to drink and obsessively calls the woman her husband left the most money to in his will, clearly a mistress from years ago. Minna sleeps with any man she encounters, including the man selling urns and the FedEx delivery guy. Trenton contemplates killing himself and he meets a random girl who shows up in the house, ostensibly looking for her pet that got out again.
And the ghosts watch. There is nothing they can do except see the mistakes being made around them and remember the mistakes from their lives. Sandra was a mistress to a married man and Minna’s looseness and Caroline’s obsessive phone calls brings those memories back. Alice watches Trenton and Amy and misses her daughter and the man she loved most.
As randomly as the strange girl appears to Trenton, a new ghost appears in the house. It is a young girl who seems very confused. Sandra and Alice have no idea who she is and her presence eventually breaks the assumed fact that ghosts are tied to where they died.
Inexplicably, Trenton is able to hear the ghosts, just a bit and when he tries very hard. His new friend claims that this is because he almost died in the car accident so it makes him closer to the other side. She convinces him to attempt a séance, to disastrous effect, except that Trenton is able to see the new, young ghost. She wants him to kill himself so she won’t be alone. The thought is tempting.
By the end, everyone’s secrets are revealed, including those of the dead. We learn why a ghost stays and when it can leave. Using ghosts is a metaphor for the willingness to not accept things as they are and hope to influence those around us is an interesting idea. Not every question is answered at the end of the book which also feels appropriate. Not every question is answered in life.
We are try hard to get through every day. Some days we fail but we get up again. At least, that is the hope, to keep getting up. Make the effort. Try.