Margaret Ann Spence Coming Home

Ghost Songs

By Regina McBride Tin House Books, October 2016 Advance Review Copy When Regina McBride tells a psychiatrist she has seen the ghost of her father, he looks skeptical. By the end of this wonderful memoir, I was quite convinced she had. Set largely in New Mexico and Ireland, McBride captures the mystical atmosphere of both places. Each holds remnants of ancient cultures in which the boundaries between the living and the dead are murky. Regina and her three siblings were only teenagers when their parents committed suicide within months of each other. Told in short paragraphs, alternating between the past and present, Regina tries to capture the essence of her parents’ struggles. She remembers happy times, her father’s love of singing and music, his conviviality, and his drinking. His sense of failure, and his inability to get ahead at work sends the family from New York to New Mexico. There, Regina’s mother descends into depression and bizarre behaviors. Regina invokes Nanny, her maternal grandmother. Nanny despises her son-in- law. Witch-like, she deliberately burns holes in his shirt with the iron. Over the story, the reader sees that Nanny has developed dementia, but in a story told in flashbacks, we understand that the children could not grasp this. We see that these four children were already abandoned by the grown-ups before their parents ended their lives. What horrifies Regina most is the idea that her parents will forever be doomed to hell, because suicide is the most unforgivable sin. Despite its teachings, Regina never leaves the Catholic church and its mysticism and rituals sustain her. Her grandparents had immigrated from Ireland, but their children had never seen it. In Regina’s mind, it was a place of magic, and towards the end of the book, she goes to live there. This last part of the memoir reads a bit like a travel diary, as Regina recounts her random meetings with people. A potential relationship with a man called Denis never actually happens. Regina wonders if he has been turned off by her revelation about her parents. Somehow, this seems to begin her healing process. Perhaps she can keep the ghosts of her parents at bay by not recalling their tragic deaths at every moment. She starts to move forward. Ghost Songs meditates on the permeability between life and death. McBride’s evocation of grief, a father’s failure, a mother’s madness, children left abandoned, is stunning.

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