Reading ghost stories is not something I’ve done as much in adulthood as I did as an adolescent. There’s something about being spooked silly as a teenager, knowing that protection surrounds you, that lost its appeal for a while as a grown-up. However, recently they’ve begun to creep back (sorry) into my reading repertoire – Sarah Walter’s The Little Stranger and Helen Dunmore’s The Greatcoat being novels of particular note.
Sophie Hannah’s The Orphan Choir concerns Louise Beeston and her next-door neighbour:
It’s quarter to midnight. I’m standing in the rain outside my next-door neighbour’s house, gripping his rusted railings with cold, wet hands, staring down through them at the misshapen and perilously narrow stone steps leading to his converted basement, from which noise is blaring. It’s my least favourite song in the world: Queen’s ‘Don’t Stop Me Now’.
Mr Fahrenheit walks over, opens the window, stands well back from the rain. ‘Hello, Louise,’ he says, his voice as sullen and weary as his face. ‘Come to give me a bollocking?’
Mr Fahrenheit, whose real name is Justin Clay, is a nuisance. So much so that he drives Louise to telephone environmental health in the middle of the night and lodge a grievance. But Clay isn’t Louise’s biggest issue.
Where else would a seven-year-old boy be in the early hours of a Sunday morning but at home, safely tucked up in his bed?
Stop it. Don’t think it.
Safe in his bed, with his mum and dad just along the hall in case he needs anything in the night, in case he has a bad dream and needs a cuddle…
I bend over, gasp for breath. Why do I do this to myself? It might not be so bad if I didn’t fill my mind with the very words that will hurt me the most. There’s another way of defining Joseph’s absence, one that’s nowhere near as painful. Other words to describe the situation, which is, in so many ways, a good and fortunate situation – so why do I never use them?
Joseph’s a pupil at Saviour College School – a chorister in their prestigious choir and therefore, a boarder. A situation over which parents have no say: choir practice and participation in services take place largely when other students are at home. The school expressly forbids these students from living at home and being transported to and from rehearsals and church events by their parents. Louise is devastated by this seeing it as her son having ‘been stolen by a school for no good reason’. When she wakes up in the night then having heard Justin Clay playing the Opening Responses that ‘Saviour College’s chaplain and the boys’ choir sing…at the beginning of every Choral Evensong’ she knows she needs to move before his behaviour breaks her completely. But what if the music were to follow her?
The Orphan Choir is a taut, gripping ghost story with a couple of twists. It’s success lies in Hannah’s use of music which pervades the text, creating a layering effect and the heart of the story – a mother’s love for her son. Don’t read it before bedtime, it’ll keep you awake for hours.
Thanks to Random House for the review copy.