The Short Version: When Frances met Charlie in Melbourne, he was married with a son. Now they live together in Sydney and Frances feels constantly askew in this new world. So she and her dog take walks. And on one of these walks, behind a fence in a garden, they see something odd…
The Review: What do we think of when we think of ghost stories? I know that, personally, I think of darkness, of shadows, of creaking old houses – and I think of autumn and winter. Certainly not springtime. But the great success of Michelle de Kretser’s slim novella is in reminding the reader that ghosts can be everywhere, at any time – something I hadn’t thought much about and now can’t stop thinking about.
This is an odd story in its slightness. That subtitle “A Ghost Story” is important for the reader, I think, because it establishes an understanding of sorts: this is a story, in the simplest sense. It is the kind of story that might be told around perhaps not a campfire but a patio table – but it is a story as opposed to a novel or other longer piece. Not only that, it’s a ghost story – a kind of story that has even stronger oral connotations and the paradoxical effect of being pretty slight while delivering an incredible wallop of emotion.
But de Kretser does stop her subversions with the general concept. This entire volume packs more surprises than a book several times its length, because de Kretser doesn’t seem terribly interested in telling the expected story. There is an element of the classical Henry James-esque ghost story, in the sudden reveal about the ghost near the end – but this ghost story is remarkably uninterested in ghosts. Or, wait, that’s not true: it’s very interested in the idea of ghosts and the meaning of them, far more than it is the reality of a ghostly encounter. And this, to a large extent, makes sense – because in real life, in our day to day lives, encounters with ghosts aren’t epic stories of horror and adventure. They’re often little more than moments, at best: a moment of cold, a strange sight, maybe even something moves… but then that’s it.
Ghosts, too, are often far more than creepy unexpected spirits of the dead. Frances, throughout the novel, encounters several kinds of “ghosts” – from Charlie’s mother (now dead) to his ex-wife (still alive and possibly making creepy phone calls), from the possible real ghost to memories (ghosts of their own sort), there’s a lingering etheriality to this book. Time seems fluid, or at least the forward progress of the ‘story’ does; there are moments when suddenly we’re shunted back to something we’d been reading previously and we realize that what we’d just read was in fact a digression, a sign of a mind wandering. Because the novella takes only about a single sitting to consume, this helps reinforce the idea of the story as something that’s being told as much as written – you can imagine de Kretser a friend telling you a story and either drifting away in their own mind for a second or rambling down a tangential path before coming back to the main thread.
Rating: 4 out of 5. The slightness of this volume does have a drawback and that’s simply that the whole thing flashes past and doesn’t necessarily land with too much weight. But it’s hard to tear your mind away from it and you’ll find that, much like a ghost, it lingers long after the corporeal presence is gone. It’s a terrific subversion of the ghost story genre and one that I never imagined could work, until I closed the book and smiled purely because it did.