|Oct/Nov 2014 Reviews & Interviews|
The Word Ghost
Allen & Unwin. 2014. 368 pp.
ISBN 978 1 74331 826 3.
History of the Rain
Bloomsbury. 2014. 358 pp.
ISBN 978 1 4088 5203 3.
These two books are very different, and yet there are many similarities between them, the most important being that both are fine examples of imaginative, innovative and absorbing story-telling. The narrator of each is a young intelligent girl whose love of literature and poetry is essential to her everyday life and seeps naturally into her stories.
Rebecca Budd, in The Word Ghost, is on intimate terms with Jane Austen and often calls on her for company: "Come on Jane, let's see what Rochester's up to" she commands and drags Jane out into the countryside in spite of that "awful old shawl" Jane insists on wearing. She reads novels and poetry and both help her negotiate her path through her teenage years, especially when a strange ghostly poet, Mr Algernon Keats, "second cousin to the great man himself," comes to inhabit the wardrobe in her bedroom.
Ruth Swain, in History of the Rain is a little older than Rebecca and she has what she calls "Something Amiss, Something Puzzling, and We're Not Sure Yet," which confines her to her bed in the attic. Because of her bed-ridden state, and because she is "exactly too clever by half, sufferer of the Smart Girl Syndrome" and has inherited her father's books, she is prodigiously well read. She tells stories which are filled with words, phrases, characters and bits of information borrowed from Irish myth and folklore, Dickens, Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson, Virgil and many others she had come to know through her voracious reading. Information and pages from The Salmon in Ireland, a book written by her grandfather, are also part of her stories.
If this literary aspects of these two books sounds daunting, it is not. It is part of the story-telling and is a delight rather than a hindrance.
My copy of The Word Ghost arrived with a flyer from The Argus which had headlines announcing Ghost Sightings in Brightly and smaller articles about Important Changes for Churchgoers and Poetry Workshops!. The date is September 2nd 1973, at which time Rebecca is a teenager with all the usual passions, anxieties and energy of a typical teenager. However, by setting Rebecca's story-telling in this historical time Christine Paice (her creator) avoids having to deal with the sort of teenage stresses which seem to dominate modern novels. There are no mobile phones or computers, no texting, dysfunctional families, sexual excesses or harassment. Instead, her book is delightfully old-fashioned. Rebecca's family are close and loving but with the usual family quirks and the usual family squabbles. Time flows more slowly. Letters are written, telephone calls are expensive and rarely made, and the pill is still a recent invention to which teenagers do not have access. As well as many strange happenings, Rebecca experiences love, disillusion, change and disappointment, but she is a resilient young woman and, most importantly, her reactions to the ghostly Algernon Keats and his trouble-making sister are matter-of-fact and remarkably tolerant. She even lends him her eiderdown.
Rebecca is a likeable and often witty narrator, and her family come to life through her accounts of their lives, and so does Mr Algernon Keats who is a remarkably life-like and likeable ghost, in spite of his poetry being infinitely inferior to that of his famous relative. Altogether, The Word Ghost is a light, often funny, and very enjoyable book.
Niall Williams' History of the Rain, which has been long-listed for the 2014 Man-Booker Prize, is a book full of stories told by Ruth Swain. Unusually for me, Ruth's accounts often made me laugh out loud. Although she is clearly very sick and is well aware that she soon may die, her stories are full of life and full of dry and funny observations about everything around her. Like the river by which she lives, she meanders into tales of her ancestors, her family, her neighbours, her Irish home in Faha, County Clare, and other by-ways. Her great-grandfather's bequest of "the Swain Philosophy of the Impossible Standard" is tracked through a family history of pole-vaulting, salmon-fishing, and obsessive poetry writing, to her own attempts to read all of the "three-thousand, nine hundred and fifty eight books" left to her by her father.
Ruth is Irish and has an Irish irreverence for pretensions, a clear eye for quirks of character and the ability to express her pithy and sometimes poetic views in simple, often colloquial, terms. The stories she tells, too, are the sort which circulate in a small community where everyone knows everyone else. The Swains, according to Ruth's Nan "are queer fish," but so are their neighbours. Uncle Noelie, for example, goes to bed in his funeral suit in case he dies in the night; Eamon Egan is so fat that Nan says "he wouldn't walk the length of himself"; to avoid paying the license fee, Danny Carmody moved his TV into the garden so that he could say he didn't have one in the house.
Ruth has some interesting things to say about writers and poets, too. Writing is "a kind of sickness. Well people don't do it." As for poetry: "I've read dozens of interviews and accounts that basically come down to How Poets Do It and the truth is that they are all do-lally and they're all different." Then there are the ambulance men, Timmy and Packy who discuss a World Cup of Writing in which Yeats is "centre midfield," Paddy Kavanagh "goalkeeper," and "your one that won the prize" and who turns out to be Anne Enright, is "centre forward."
"We tell stories," says Ruth, "to heal the pain of living." And not all her stories are happy. Her brother's story, her father's story and her own story, all are tragic in different ways. But, as she notes, "Alice Munro says, "The whole grief of life will not do in fiction," so her stories shine with love, laughter, and hope.
Ruth's creator, Niall Williams has a poet's sensibility as well as a poet's voice. He writes in a way which is full of poetry and he manages to balance joy and woe in this novel superbly.