David Levithan’s Marly’s Ghost is a ‘remix’ of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. The whole has been given a ‘Valentine’s twist’ to further set it apart from its original. Marly’s Ghost begins in rather an interesting manner: ‘Marly was dead, to begin with. There was no doubt whatsoever about that… When she went off the treatments, she decided she wanted to die at home, and she wanted me to be there with her family. So I sat, and I waited, and I was destroyed… She was sixteen years old, but there in the bed she could have been ninety’.
The novel is narrated by Marly’s boyfriend of three years, Ben (whose real name is, perhaps rather predictably, Ebenezer), and is told from a position of retrospect, three months after her death. Understandably, his grief is still raw as he laments upon the fate of his girlfriend and isolates himself from those around him: ‘It was ‘I needed distance for my own grief… It was as if all the moments [of our relationship] had died along with her. Everything had died. Everything except me. And that was arguable. There were times when I felt I had died, too’. The advent of Valentine’s Day is merely adding more pain and sadness for him, particularly as his friends are so intent upon marking the day in some way: ‘What’s Valentine’s Day about,’ he asks, ‘except the desperate search to find someone to spend Valentine’s Day with?’.
Ben is visited by the Ghosts of Love Past, Love Present, and Death, interestingly. All three of these spirits, whilst wishing above all to alter his melancholy character, are interested in his ‘welfare’ and his ‘reclamation’. Whilst Ben is a modern character in many ways, the voice which Levithan has crafted for Marly leans toward the highly Dickensian in terms of its phrasing and vocabulary: ‘I am still tied to this life. Just as you have been tied to this death. As long as the ties are there, I wander through the world and witness what you will not share. While you’re caught, I’m caught’. It is subtle changes like this which make Marly’s Ghost well worth a read, particularly if one is familiar with the original tale.
The parallels which Levithan has drawn with Dickens’ original are sometimes predictable, but the whole is well executed – for example, the door-knocker of Ben’s house turns into Marly’s face: ‘Before I could even gasp, she was gone’, and the consequent appearance of her ghost: ‘The chain she dragged was around her waist… I saw it was an elongated version of the charm bracelet, with objects from our life clasped to each link. Not just the golden bell and the golden house and the golden heart from the real bracelet [which she wore], but books I had given her, flowers from holidays, blankets shared after sex’. The essence of Dickens’ morality tale has been kept, and the alteration of the still recognisable characters – a gay couple named Tiny and Tim, and a party-loving man called Fezziwig, for example – works well.
Marly’s Ghost is definitely not Levithan’s strongest book, but it is certainly an interesting one. The novel is intelligently written, and Ben’s narrative voice feels realistic. Although Levithan writes primarily for a young adult audience, he does not dumb anything down, and likes to explore dark and thought-provoking themes in his fiction. As usual, he handles a deep and worrying topic marvellously well, and his skill as an author comes through on every page. Marly’s Ghost is quite a quick read, but it is a multi-layered and thoughtful one nonetheless.