The Saturday Night Ghost Club is the latest fiction novel by Canadian author Craig Davidson. Neurosurgeon Jake Baker knows that the brain is a much more complex organ than we realize. He even paints himself as nothing more than a glorified mechanic; he can help treat a physical malady like a tumour, but the deeper workings of the mind and memory are a mystery even to him. In this novel Jake recounts when he was twelve years old living in his home town of Niagara Falls—or Cataract City, as the locals called it—and the summer of the Saturday Night Ghost Club. It was organised by his eccentric uncle Calvin to explore the supposedly haunted places of the city. During this life-changing summer Jake discovers that this club is unearthing something more horrible buried in his uncle’s past, something that has been kept from him all his life.
Paranormal explorations and intrigue lends a particular flavour to the book, but by and large it is much more of a coming-of-age story about Jake. The Ghost Club and mystery around Uncle Calvin are a good catalyst for the events that take place, but these elements were a little more secondary to the plot than I expected going in. Nevertheless 12-year-old Jake was a character I could really relate with; his irrational fears of the otherworldly, self-consciousness about his weight, and insecurities around others were poignant reminders of my own experiences around that age.
Though conspicuously told through the lens of an adult Jake, his perspective managed to feel both organic and nostalgic at the same time. When absorbed in the moment I found myself easily forgetting that I wasn’t in his mind in the moment, yet I wasn’t ever thrown off when he made an explicit reference to hindsight, reminding me that it is his adult self telling me the story. This was most effective when he contrasts his childhood experiences with his adult insight, such as wondering, after telling of a harrowing experience, just how often kids have close calls with death and return home safely with their parents none the wiser.
Part of Jake’s growth over this summer is also his budding friendship with two Métis siblings, Dove and Billy Yellowbird, who have recently moved to Cataract City. He meets each of them separately under unusual circumstances, the former saving him from a bully throwing fireworks into his face by pitching rocks at his assailant and standing her ground, and the latter in Uncle Calvin’s occult shop when he seeks otherworldly means to contact his recently deceased grandmother to make sure she is okay. I was surprised to find Jake’s interactions with these two over the course of the summer taking precedence over the Ghost Club activities. The Yellowbirds take part in the club too, but Jake does much more with them that I found even more compelling. I was quickly attached to them as a group, delighting in their antics together as well as fearing for them when the darker turns came.
Though the trio did spend a lot of time together, it is how Jake’s relationship with each develops separately that was most interesting. Billy is Jake’s age and a more stoic, athletic boy, but shares his interest in the paranormal. I wish a little more had been done to develop his character, but I enjoyed the little moments of friendly intimacy that occurred between the two of them. Jake spends much of his time anxious that Billy will move on from him when school starts the way other friends have, but Billy drops small cues that indicate to the reader that this will not be the case, which I appreciated as a subtler touch in the writing.
Older by two years and precocious at that, Dove is another matter entirely. Jake is almost immediately infatuated with her in a way that also resembles hero worship. Dove is high-energy, enterprising, and not to be underestimated, but also a little throttled by her surroundings in unfortunate ways that cause her to act out. Jake’s boyish love for her is deeply endearing and really I liked the way things all developed, which evaded the typical tropes I’d expect from a coming-of-age story. Dove doesn’t simply become an object of his affections to be won over, yet his feelings don’t go completely unrequited either. I thought their relationship was excellently formed.
The issues I do have with this book have to do with the unfortunately predictable ways the plot plays out. Once I realized this would be a coming-of-age story, during the scene where Jake is beset upon by his bully, I began to have vague expectations of where things would go, which ended up being fairly accurate. The angle that did pleasantly surprise me was Jake’s relationship with Dove, but other than that the story didn’t take me to many unexpected places. The arc of the excursions with Uncle Calvin and the Ghost Club became too specifically predictable too. Long before the resolution was reached I had a distinct enough notion of what was really going on that the reveal didn’t surprise me at all. It also took more of a backseat to Jake’s experiences with Billy and Dove, which hit higher highs in terms of tension, ultimately softening a lot of the impact of that subplot for me.
I stand by my criticisms of The Saturday Night Ghost Club, but they don’t really do much to diminish the enjoyment I had with the novel. Though it hits very familiar beats in the plot, Davidson executed upon the formula really well with little intricacies in character and detail that made it unique. It was a heartfelt and relatable story about growing up, while also exploring the power of memory in how it can elevate how we recall our experiences or compel us to seek out painful truths seemingly lost.
My Rating: 4 out of 5
Reviews of other books by Craig Davidson: