A Tunnel in the Sky

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Exit Ghost
by Jennifer R. Donohue

Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted October 24, 2023

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I highly recommend this book but my review will be brief. First, because I don't want to spoil it, and second, I'm not a good enough reviewer to do it justice. Do not let the fact it was self-published lead you to the conclusion it is not worth checking out. All writers work alone, and how and where they are able to sell their work should not significant. It is also Donohue's debut novel, but with many other shorter works before that, and plenty of positive comments from established writers. The prose is at times simple and fluid, but also complex and insightful. I hate being able to predict an outcome, especially when it turns out I'm right, but in this case, even knowing a bit about it going in, I was continually surprised by the twists and turns of the plot. The little bit I knew was the author saying it is a re-telling of Shakespeare's Hamlet, which I have to admit I have never read, and I think I've only seen two dramatic presentations, but the most recent was nearly 30 years ago. However, I think there is a bit of Macbeth to it as well, particulary the three witches. Yet the witches in Macbeth were peripheral characters, whereas in this book one of them is the main character, Juliet "Jules" Duncan, a complicated and sympathetic protagonist.

The name Duncan is also from Macbeth, but here the name is passed down in a matrilineal line, Jules' mother Gladys being the current head of a vast train empire, which also has other ventures in its portfolio. Her father, Julian, took Duncan as his surname, as was traditional in the family. But he has been murdered, and Jules was wounded in the same attack, and now, somewhat recovered and back at home, she attempts to conjure her father's ghost. She may or may not have been successful. She did get an answer, but she can't be sure it was her father who tells her "It was Hector." Julian's ghost, at least she assumes it is him, manifests a couple of other times, but most of the time Jules is alone in her quest, even though she has other witches she could rely on, the main one being her best friend Ashley (Ashes). MaryAnne, the one who had taught both of them, has been missing for several years, so Jules and Ashes have in mind to bring Una into the fold. Una is the daughter of the Duncan's security chief.

The author provided trigger warnings in her introduction, and I will reveal three of them: grief and grieving, self harm, and suicidal ideation. Even though Jules and Ashes are very close, Jules has a hard time revealing everything she has done and wants to do, mainly because whenever she thinks of them she gets excrutiating headaches, along with several instances of lost time and lost memories. As for grief, the author dedicated the book to her father who is gone. Jules misses her father desperately, and wants revenge for his murder, and for her injury, although she can't be sure she was an intended target, or just collateral damage. Something Jules thinks about grief later is particularly poignant: "But there was no shared grief, and Jules thought anybody who talked about shared grief was lying. Grief was its own world, its own angry, rough beast that lived in dark corners and snapped without warning."

In addition to the Shakespeare trappings, there are a lot of modern-day references, with the setting being the Jersey Shore where the author grew up. Jules and Ashes' apartment is in Asbury Park, so there are mentions of the boardwalk, Convention Hall, the Stone Pony bar, Empress Hotel, Monmouth University, the nearby Freehold Township, and a (maybe) haunted section of Essex Road in Neptune Township. The Duncan estate is on a private island which has to be fictional, with one reference indicating it was man-made. I'm sure it is not Shark River Island, which is not private. One must never read too much into fiction, that it might be somewhat autobiographical, just as we shouldn't attempt too much of a one-to-one correspondence between these characters and those from Shakespeare. Nor should we worry if the magic systems depicted are meaningful. Everything we do has an effect on our surroundings, the other people in our life, and our community. That's as much magic as anyone needs. It is enough to simply enjoy a tale brilliantly told, inhabited by believable characters, with thoughtful ruminations on life and death, love and friendships, despair, but also hope. There is always hope. Get this book and share its wonders.

One other thing: there is a Yorick in the story, Jules' faithful Doberman, even though the author knew it would be funnier if it was a Great Dane.


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Jennifer R. Donohue

March 7, 2023

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