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Book Review: The Unquiet by Jeannine Garsee

Back Cover: When Rinn Jacobs moves to a new town, she hopes it will be a fresh start.  At first, everything goes according to plan.  She falls in with the popular girls at her new school and falls for the very cute boy-next door Nate.  But River Hills High School has a secret.  The ghost of a girl who died twenty years ago supposedly haunts a hallway.  rinn’s not sure she believes it, but when strange things start happening to her friends, Rinn decides there’s only one way to know for sure.  She needs to ditch her bipolar meds again and see what the voices are really trying to say . . .

“Can Aa-a-ana-liese come out and play?”  – Jeannine Garsee

The Unquiet by Jeannine Garsee is both an unsettling ghost story and a searing look into the mind of a teenage girl with mental health issues, and sometimes it is not sure which is which.

Rinn and her mother have left their thrilling life on the West Coast to move to a small town in Ohio.  This town, like all small Midwestern taunts, it a town haunted by secrets where everyone seems to know everyone’s business and yet no one still knows exactly why the dead girl ended up floating in the pool all those years ago.  And this particular ghost doesn’t seem willing to keep hiding in the shadows once Rinn shows up, but is that just a coincidence, a sign that her madness is no longer under control, or does it have to do with something else entirely?

Having just moved from a small Ohio town last year, I thought the depiction of this life was spot on.  The familiarity, the whispers, the struggle to find something to do – Garsee definitely knows how to draw readers right into this world.  One of the best parts of this book is the teasing interplay of stereotypes between “country bumpkin” Nate and the “surfer girl” Rinn.  But as they break out from thinking of each other in those stereotypes and really start getting to know one another, a good chemistry really starts to build.

“And that’s why Mom is always so afraid. If we don’t know what made me sick in the first place, how can anyone guarantee I won’t flip out again?” – Jeannine Garsee

A very important part, of course, of The Unquiet is Rinn’s mental health issues.  In this particular instance, Rinn is being medicated for being bipolar.  Something happened on the West Coast because of her bipolar issues, and that is one play on the idea of haunting.  In fact, each chapter heading is a countdown of the numbers of months and days that have passed since that event occurred; it is so significant to the life of Rinn that it is now how she measures time.  And in the end it weaves its way into the other haunting, which is the other part of the story.

Years ago, the body of Annaliese was found floating in the pool of the local high school, the very high school where Rinn now attends school.  She is said to haunt one very particular hallway of the school and strange things begin to happen to the people who go into that hallway.  Annaliese seems to be especially targeting certain people, including Nate and Rinn.

In the end, Rinn decides that the only way she can find out what is really happening is to go off of her medication, with the premise being that the medication is somehow dulling Annaliese’s ability to communicate with her. 

I thought the juxtaposition of the ghost story with the concept of the mental health issues was deftly intertwined and intriguing; at times it was hard to determine, what, exactly was real and what exactly was a product of mental illness, which really upped the intrigue and creepiness factor.  It was definitely interesting to get insight into Rinn and her struggle with being bipolar; she talks very frankly about missing the manic stage and how the medicine affects her.  But of course this is more than contemporary fiction about mental health issues, it is also a spine tingling ghost story.  Although, to be honest, I think the inclusion of the ghost story layered on top of the mental health issues makes it hard at points to distinguish between the two (what part is ghost, what part is mental illness?) which makes for great storytelling, but means that this book is not the title you want to put into the hands of people look for a problem novel to raise awareness (not without some good guided discussion).

I thought that Garsee did the ghost story pitch perfect.  There is that slowly menacing creep that begins in the back of your neck as the little things start to happen.  Then, Annaliese starts to up the ante, people start dying, and the pace becomes more frenzied.  Add to that, Rinn decides to stop taking her medicine and things really begin to spiral out of control, both in reality and in Rinn’s head.  Add in a dash of mystery as we work to figure out what, exactly, happened to poor little Annaleise, and you get a pretty haunting read (pun definitely intended).

The back of the book says that “Fans of Black Swan and Lisa McMann’s Cryer’s Cross will be fascinated by this psychological thriller” and I think that is spot on.  Although without the R rating.  4 out of 5 stars.  

What is one of your favorite ghost stories?  And what books do you think handle the topic of mental illness really well?