Secrets are at the haunting heart of this touching page-turner of a debut novel by C.S. O’Cinneide.
Daniel, an Irishman living in America, is walking the Camino de Santiago, an age-old path of many names, running a staggering 500 miles through northern Spain, and a journey that many others take each year. He is on a personal pilgrimage, carrying not only the ashes of his wife, Petra, in his backpack but also a spiritual burden – the truth of how she died. Every step he takes is weighed heavy with his grief, and every step is – we hope on his behalf – another towards his enlightenment. His aim of the trek is to scatter Petra’s ashes, though the idea of it, and of letting her go, is hard to swallow. After that, he plans to sell off the life he and his wife built together.
But (and oh, don’t you love it when there’s a but), a woman has vanished on the very same trail. On a lonely stretch, Daniel meets Virginia, a bright, bubbly Californian also travelling alone. Given this recent disappearance of the hiker, she asks to travel with him, and they more-or-less continue their journey as a pair. At first (at first – another magic phrase) Ginny seems to be a balm to Daniel’s wounds, until… are you ready for another but? They are being stalked, and what follows is a journey into a twisty, mind-unravelling experience that defies explanation. Where, exactly, is Daniel’s path going to lead?
A few things have stayed with me from this book. The prose is beautiful, and the imagery so alive I felt I could breathe the same air as Daniel, in whose footsteps we literally walk throughout the story, blisters and all. At times it was like reading an absorbing travel guide; you know, the good ones, where our mind’s eye sees what the author sees, and where the history/lore is expertly recounted. The Camino de Santiago is a real place, steeped in ancient folklore and drenched in symbolism, and it is well and truly brought to life.
The entwining of peril and horror with what is essentially a very human novel about love and loss was what really perked my interest. The idea of letting go – or rather, being unable to – is laced with the strong theme of renewal and how, as is the nature of the beast, it’s impossible for us to stay (metaphorically) in one place. Daniel’s desire to lead at least some kind of a life is curbed by guilt, making him a very relatable protagonist. In Ginny, the author creates the necessary vessel for exposition, and the handful of other characters they meet along the way all perform a literary function (look out especially for Rob, a Dutch chap who lends welcome happiness to the narrative), though I would have enjoyed seeing more of them. Somehow, in comparison to the richly drawn Daniel and Ginny, they weren’t quite so technicolour, which is a shame because I felt they had potential.
O’Cinneide’s careful use of horror and traditional supernatural tropes are a joy: what I call a slow, The Turn Of The Screw kind. Is Daniel losing his sanity? Is he so wretched with grief and so exhausted from walking that what’s happening to him is all in the mind? He’s a classic unreliable narrator for much of the story, and enjoyable for it. The only bugbear was the dialogue felt a little stilted at times, using superfluous words and tags to make a speech pattern which made me falter and therefore lose pace. What overrides this completely is the creep factor, combined with a very real, and very touching, tale of grief which is curiously uplifting.
Petra’s Ghost by C.S. O’Cinneide is published by Titan Books.