Reading Round-Up: Ghosts of the Past

Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss is told from the perspective of teenage girl Silvie during the days she spends living in a recreation of an Iron Age settlement in Northumberland with her parents and a group of students, led by Professor Slade. Silvie’s dad is determined that things should be done authentically although he’s relented as far as pyjamas, underwear, toothpaste and tampons are concerned thanks to some intervention from Silvie’s mum. Silvie attempts to keep her dad happy but is drawn to the students and eventually joins them in sneaking to the Spar in the nearest village. As the book progresses, Silvie’s dad’s obsession with how they should be living becomes more and more rigid and the tension builds until a horrific act is committed. Moss uses the juxtaposition of contemporary society with Iron Age life to highlight themes of toxic masculinity and gender roles, questioning whether those men who conform to outdated stereotypes have a place in modern society. Ghost Wall is a superb book made all the more powerful by its brevity.

Thanks to Granta for the review copy.

Melmoth, Sarah Perry’s third novel, contains many stories connected by Melmoth, the loneliest being in the world. Perry’s Melmoth (as opposed to Charles Maturin’s in Melmoth the Wanderer) is a woman condemned to wander the world haunting those who’ve been complicit in acts of harm. We meet her at the point when Helen Franklin, whose story threads through the novel, is also about to see her. Helen, forty-two, a translator living alone in Prague, is given part of a written confession by the recently deceased J.A. Hoffman. Once Helen has read the portion of the story, she returns to her friend Karel’s house where other stories in the form of letters, a journal and a testimony are given to her. But the story which really haunts Helen Franklin is her own. Through these tales, Perry explores our complicity in the sins and atrocities committed in the world. As Melmoth bears witness to these acts so do we, and while the characters are haunted by Melmoth she too appears at the edge of our vision, forcing us to examine our own behaviour. Melmoth is a compelling, terrifying, overtly political examination of humanity. Those of you who’ve been reading this blog for some time/follow me on Twitter will be aware that I’m a huge fan of Perry’s previous novels After Me Comes the Flood and The Essex Serpent. When I reviewed Perry’s debut I said that I wished I’d written it, I feel similarly about Melmoth.

Thanks to Serpent’s Tail for the review copy.

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward is told from multiple perspectives: two members of the same family – Jojo, a 13-year-old boy and his mother, Leonie – and the ghost of another boy, Richie. Jojo, baby Kayla, and their mother, Leonie, live with Leonie’s parents. Michael, Leonie’s white partner and father of the children, has been in prison for three years. He’s about to be released and the majority of the book covers the journey to and from the jail. Leonie is a drug user, as much addicted to the presence of her dead brother, Given, who appears to her when she’s high, as she is the substances themselves. She struggles to take care of her kids so Jojo watches over Kayla while Pop, Leonie’s father, watches over Jojo. Pop tells Jojo stories about his time in Parchman prison and a boy named Richie, the ghost of whom joins them when they arrive to collect Michael. Everyone is haunted in some way, not only by the dead who linger nearby but by the history of the treatment of black people in America. Ward shows how the effects of slavery permeate life today, focusing particularly on the intersection of race and class. Although this is the story of one family, it echoes the realities for many. It’s a heart-breaking and very necessary read.

Barbara Kingsolver’s latest novel Unsheltered contains a dual narrative, set in Vineland, New Jersey. In the contemporary strand, Willa Knox and her family have moved into a house they’ve inherited following the closure of the college where her husband, Iano, taught and the loss of the house that came with the job. Iano’s dying father Nick is living with them and their seemingly wayward daughter, Tig, has recently returned from Cuba. In the first chapter of the novel, Willa discovers the house is structurally unsound and her son, Zeke, is left to raise a baby alone following his girlfriend’s death by suicide. Needing money for the repairs to the house in order to shelter her ailing family, Willa begins some research. In 1871, Thatcher Greenwood is attempting to introduce Charles Darwin’s latest ideas into his teaching, much to the chagrin of the school’s leader. His next-door neighbour, Mary Treat, is much more enthusiastic about his plans. A self-trained biologist, Treat conducts experiments in her living room and corresponds with Darwin himself. Delightfully, Treat is based on a real woman (and reminded me of Elizabeth Gilbert’s novel The Signature of All Things). Kingsolver draws parallels between the two eras through fear of change and people’s reactions to it. Willa repeatedly states that her and Iano have done everything right: they had good jobs, they worked hard, they raised a family. They expect to have property, money and stability in their 50s but those things are gone. Halfway through the novel I became frustrated at what I perceived to be white people problems – if things are terrible for the white middle class then we’re all fucked, woe is them – but then I realised that Kingsolver knows her audience. She’s writing for the white middle class pointing out how they’ve contributed to the destruction of the environment, the rise of the far right, the tyranny of capitalism. She doesn’t leave them – or us – without hope though but it comes from what might appear to be an unexpected source: Millennials. Alongside Mary Treat, the most compelling character in the novel is Tig. Unconventional, attuned to the needs of society and the planet, she – and her friends – might just have the answers we need.

Thanks to Faber for the review copy.