I love traditional ghost stories, but was drawn to Michelle de Kretser’s Springtime: A Ghost Story precisely because it sounded unexpected. I am used to cold, dark, usually Western European settings in ghost stories, where atmosphere is built, and the sinister creeps into the scenes which we expect. De Kretser’s novel, instead, is set during the springtime in Sydney, Australia. Despite the quite low rating which the book has on Goodreads, I was intrigued by the story in Springtime, and enjoyed her novel The Rose Garden when I read it some years ago. I therefore ordered a copy immediately.
Springtime is a neat little hardback, and coming in at just 85 pages, it can be read in one sitting. There are several odd occurrences within it, but it is not a ghost story which harks to conventions of the genre. Of de Kretser’s authorial decisions, Andrew Wilson writes: ‘… [she] undermines our expectations by refusing to play by the rules… One reads Springtime not for its shock value – this tale is much more subtle than that – but for the way de Kretser explores the nature of ambiguity and for her deliciously unsettling descriptions.’ It is described in its blurb as ‘rare, beguiling and brilliant’, three words which would draw me to read almost any novel.
Charlie and Frances, our protagonists, have moved from trendy Melbourne to more traditional Sydney, so that Frances can take up a position as a research fellow. They make their journey with ‘an unshakeable sense that they have tipped the world on its axis. Everything is alien, unfamiliar, exotic: haunting, even.’ Frances, rather than Charlie, is the focus throughout the story. At the outset, de Kretser explores how her new surroundings make her feel: ‘She was still getting used to the explosive Sydney spring. It produced hip-high azaleas with blooms as big as fists. Like the shifty sun, these distortions of scale disturbed. Frances stared into a green-centred white flower, thinking, “I’m not young any more.” How had that happened? She was twenty-eight.’ As a character, I liked her immediately. She is a ‘solitary, studious girl, whose life had taken place in books; at least four years of it had passed in the eighteenth century.’
We meet Frances when she is walking through her new neighbourhood. Almost immediately, de Kretser makes subtle suggestions, planting seeds in the mind of her reader: ‘Picking up her pace, Frances saw a woman in the shadowy depths of the garden. She wore a little hat and a trailing pink dress; a white hand emerged from her sleeve. There came upon Frances a sensation that sometimes overtook her when she was looking at a painting: space was foreshortened, time stilled.’ After she sees this woman for the first time, she does not stop doing so: ‘These partial visions, half-encounters, were repeated at intervals over weeks.’ This woman proves to be ‘as silent and white as her dog.’
In her story, de Kretser explores the differences, and rivalries, between Melbourne and Sydney. In Frances’ new city, ‘… the streetscape was so weirdly old-fashioned. Where were the hip, rusting-steel facades, Melbourne’s conjuring of post-industrial decay? The decrepitude in their western suburb was real: boarded-up shops, cracked pavements, shabby terrace houses sagging behind stupendous trees.’ Some of the scenes which de Kretser sculpts are beautiful, and others stark and provocative: ‘Charlie gathered up Frances’s hair and balanced the knot on his palm. At night they slept entwined like bare sheets.’ I loved her quite unusual descriptions: for instance, ‘They were thin eyes and surprisingly inky’, and ‘On the day Charlie left his wife, she had sent Frances an email that could still make Frances want to do unreasonable things: seize the breadknife and saw off her hair, eat stones.’ I also got a real sense of the natural world pushing against urbanisation in the story; de Kretser writes: ‘The river had turned into fierce, colourless glass. It was a tyrant, punishing anyone who dared to look at it. Small parrots shrieked with self-importance. Their emerald broke savagely on the brassy sheen.’
I found Springtime rather an atmospheric read, with a strong sense of place. De Kretser manages to make a setting which many readers would think of as idyllic, into something with dark edges. It is told using rather short, unnamed chapters, which add to the sense of tension. I found the story absorbing from the outset, and found myself really caring about Frances, who felt like a realistic character. The crafting of the plot is tight, and it feels as though not a single sentence has been wasted. It is a revealing novella, which has a lot of depth to it, and is ultimately quite powerful. There is such attention to detail here, and I’m certain that Springtime is a story whose nuances I will be thinking about for months to come.