Plenty of people wish that their dead loved ones would come back from the grave, to assure them that they’re not burning in eternal pitchfork-perforated torment, or maybe to provide some tips on what to expect. But what would it be like, if it really happened? What if they returned, not bearing messages of hope and love, but to nag you about your career choices or remind you of your mistakes, maybe while doing that irritating clicking thing with their tongue that used to drive you up the wall? Or what if your relationship wasn’t all that great while they were alive, frankly, and you don’t necessarily want them hanging around and offering advice – or playing matchmaker for you?
Mark Buckle is a thirtyish teacher at a public school in the outskirts of London, and his live-in girlfriend, Caroline, has just died in a car accident (rainy night, dog runs into road). It’s widely assumed that Mark must be prostrate with grief, and there’s a general ripple of shock when he returns to work just a few days after her death, showing no signs of emotional distress besides his usual gruffness and bad attitude. But what nobody realizes is that Mark hasn’t really lost Caroline – not exactly. Strange things happen around his house; objects move themselves, the microwave flashes HELLO. And soon, Caroline herself begins to appear, materializing in ghostly, glowing form and uttering cryptic phrases in an otherworldly voice. Stranger still, Caroline appears to be setting Mark up with Tess, a beautiful but scarily devout Christian who works at his school. Now, Mark’s trying to get on with his work, sort out his complicated feelings over Caroline’s death, and deal with his too-soon attraction to Tess. With the well-meaning help of a couple of fellow teachers – a flamboyantly gay Australian forced to coach the boys’ football team (har, har), and a mousy, plain woman whom everyone suspects of secretly shagging the married headmaster – Mark is on his way back to life, whether he likes it or not.
Seeing as Nick Hornby hasn’t done any fiction since 2002’s execrable How to be Good, it was inevitable that others would step up to fill his shoes. And, in fact, Believer borrows heavily from Hornby’s bag of tricks: crusty, sarcastic thirtysomething protagonist with long-suffering girlfriend gripes about life and whines about his failed romantic past, while humorously oddball gang of friends tries to cheer him up, and sarcastic thirtysomething eventually, grudgingly, learns to value personal relationships. If it seems a little ghoulish that the protagonist’s dead girlfriend is trying to hook him up with a replacement a week after her own death, you’re not alone; Mark’s grieving period is drastically foreshortened for plot-advancing purposes, but it has the side effect of making him out to be a callous, opportunistic ass, and rendering his grief unconvincing. Additionally, Mark’s solipsism gives short shrift to the other characters’ development: his friends (particularly the Token Gay Friend) come off as little more than stereotypes to be exploited for punch lines, and Caroline – potentially the most interesting of the bunch, while alive – has turned into an insufferably serene spirit guide with no remaining traces of her earthly personality or humanity.
Believer is frequently guilty of bad taste; it treats death as little more than a really permanent breakup, indulges in a saccharine, magical view of the afterlife, and bullies characters into stereotypical pratfalls for cheap laughs (Christians and gays suffer the brunt of this treatment). Nor does Adams’s prose compare to Hornby’s, despite the similarities between their novels – you won’t find any of the hilariously deft turns of phrase, or sharp-eyed observations of human nature, that made High Fidelity such a winner. A lightweight romantic comedy that offers little of substance, I’m A Believer makes me hope there isn’t life after death.