Two Novels: ‘The Surface Breaks’ and ‘The Householder’

The Surface Breaks by Louise O’Neill *** 9781407185538
I have read a couple of Louise O’Neill’s to date, and really enjoy her writing style. She tackles a lot of important topics, particularly with regard to young women. I thought, on the surface of it, that The Surface Breaks would be rather different; it is, after all, a retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s beguiling fairytale ‘The Little Mermaid’. However, O’Neill has managed to suffuse it with a lot of affecting issues.

Whilst I found this, and the way in which she tackled the story, interesting, I found that there was no subtlety whatsoever to it. From the first, feminism and the way in which the mermaid protagonist of her story is so oppressed, is explicitly mentioned; this continues throughout the book, and becomes a little repetitive at times. The narrator constantly questions herself, often asking herself the same things over and over again. As I read further on, the cliched characters and roles began to grate on me somewhat.

Elements of the original story were well interpreted and incorporated, but I found parts of it were executed far better than others. The Surface Breaks feels rather drawn out; there was perhaps a little too much build-up to the time at which she gains legs and loses her voice, which could have been edited for greater effect. O’Neill, whilst retaining the core ideas of Andersen’s stories, does manage to bring the story up to date. However, the novel is not quite as good as I felt it could have been.


9780393008517The Householder by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala ***
The Sunday Times calls Ruth Prawer Jhabvala ‘a writer of genius…  a writer of world class – a master story teller.’  Seeing that she has been on my radar for years, and I have read such praise as the above on many an occasion, it seems odd that it has taken me such a long time to get around to actually reading her work.  Whilst I didn’t love The Householder I’m so pleased I finally have an idea of her themes and writing style.

First published in 1960, The Householder is an ‘appealing story of a young schoolteacher trying to come to terms with marriage and maturity’, which is ‘much more than a highly comic vignette of a particular society – it is also a reflection of a universal experience.’  Prem is our protagonist, a young man who is ‘not too good at enforcing discipline’ in his role as Hindi teacher in a boy’s college.  He has recently married a woman named Indu, in a relationship arranged by his parents; he barely knows her, and feels adrift in their new home in Delhi.  Indu is also pregnant, something which is ‘a terrible embarrassment for him.  Now everybody would know what he did with her at night in the dark…’.

Prem is almost constantly at odds with himself; his life is not shaping up to be following the same course which he had imagined so vividly, and try as he might, he is unable to change it.  He cannot connect with his wife, no matter how hard he tries: ‘He felt so alone and lonely, shut up in this small ugly flat with Indu who cried by herself in the sitting-room while he had to lie and cry by himself in the bedroom.’  Prem is, essentially, at a point of crisis in his life.  Whilst I did not find him a believable protagonist, he is both believable and understandable in his thoughts and actions.

The way in which Jhabvala writes about Indian society is fascinating, particularly with regard to Prem; despite having little disposable income, he feels that he has to keep a servant-boy to maintain his public appearance.   Jhabvala deftly sets scenes, and gives one a feel for each of her characters in just a couple of sentences.  Her prose has a wonderful ease to it.  As a character study, The Householder is fascinating, but I did find that due to its rendering into the form of a novella, some important themes remained relatively unexplored.  From the outset, I thought that this would be a four-star read, but the ending does feel a little too rushed to fit with the quiet patience which the rest of the story has.  The Householder is unarguably transporting, however, and I look forward to visiting India again with Jhabvala very soon.

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‘Everything Under’ by Daisy Johnson ****

Daisy Johnson’s debut novel, Everything Under, was shortlisted for 2018’s Man Booker Prize.  Of all of the novels on the shortlist, this was the one which appealed to me most, and her short story collection, Fen, has been on my radar for a long time.  There has been, quite rightly, a lot of buzz around the novel, and some of the reviews really caught my eye.  Most interestingly, The Guardian writes of Johnson’s prose style as ‘a mix of Graham Swift and Angela Carter’.

Everything Under is a modernised retelling of the Classical myth Oedipus Rex.  Protagonist Gretel Whiting works as a lexicographer, updating dictionary entries.  Whilst the prose and Gretel’s thoughts are deeply involved in language and the power of words, much of the story proper revolves around her relationship with her mother, Sarah.  Whilst they were close when Gretel was small, they are now estranged.  Having no knowledge whatsoever of where her mother is, she regularly phones around the local hospitals and morgues to try and locate her.  However, things are turned on their head when she receives information from a hospital which ‘interrupts Gretel’s isolation and throws up questions from long ago.’

When she is introduced into the novel in the present day, Sarah is suffering decline, and a loss of memory.  Johnson relays, in quite stark prose, the effects of this upon both herself and Gretel.  She writes: ‘You shout for me in the middle of the night and when I come running you ask what I’m doing there.  You are not Gretel, you say.  My daughter Gretel was wild and beautiful.  You are not her.’  Despite this sad edge to her condition, there are still moments of lucidity and companionship between mother and daughter, and remembrances of a secret language which they made up when Gretel was small: ‘Occasionally we find those old words sneaking back in and we are undone by them.  It’s as if nothing has ever changed, as if time doesn’t mean a jot.  We have gone back and I am thirteen years old and you are my awful, wonderful, terrifying mother.  We live on a boat on the river and we have words that no one else does.  We have a whole language all our own.’

Gretel and Sarah are both rendered as complex characters, and as the novel continues, their perplexing relationship unfolds.  Johnson deftly writes almost an expose of mother and daughter, exploring whether any former love can be recovered between them in the present day.  Gretel is a very private person, choosing to live almost in secrecy: ‘I was an hour and a half from Oxford, where I worked, on the bus.  No one but the postman knew I was here.  I was protective of my solitude.’  She is insightful about her reasoning for searching for her mother, who abandoned her when she was thirteen: ‘I’d always understood that the past did not die just because we wanted it to…  The past was not a thread trailing behind us but an anchor.  That was why I looked for you all those years, Sarah.  Not for answers, condolences; not to ply you with guilt or set you up for a fall.  But because – a long time ago – you were my mother and you left.’ As a character study, the novel is a satisfying one.

The plot of Everything Under meanders between Gretel’s present and episodes in her past, with particular focus upon the period in which her mother took in a young runaway named Margot, disguised as a boy named Marcus, and subsequently left her. Of all the characters here, I found Margot by far the most interesting; there was something quite unusual about her, and the way in which she interacted with the world around her.   The narrative is not a linear one, and episodes from Gretel’s past are often a little muddled in the order in which they occurred.  There is an element of magical realism here, in that something which Gretel and Sarah name ‘The Bonak’ lurks in the water of their canal, stealing things away.

I found the opening paragraph of the novel utterly beguiling.  Johnson writes: ‘The places we are born come back.  They disguise themselves as migraines, stomach aches, insomnia…  We become strangers to the places we are born.  They would not recognise us but we will always recognise them…  If we were turned inside out there would be maps cut into the wrong side of our skin.  Just so we could find our way back.  Except, cut wrong side into my skin are not canals and train tracks and a boat, but always: you.’  From the start of Everything Under, there is a dark volatility to the prose.  For instance, ‘You are too old to beat anything out of.  The memories flash like broken wine glasses in the dark and then are gone.’

The novel’s prose never sugarcoats anything; rather, the murky aspects of Gretel’s past and present, as well as descriptions of the landscape, come to the fore: ‘She crawled as far as she could into the bush.  There was a slime of leaves, beer cans cut open, a white-filmed balloon that skidded under her bad leg’, for instance.  I did enjoy Johnson’s writing style, but given what I had heard of Fen, I must admit that I was expecting her language to be more poetic, and the sense of place to be rather more present at the story’s outset.  It does strengthen dramatically as the novel goes on, however, and I enjoyed the way in which Oxfordshire and the waterways almost became characters in their own right.  I did feel the structure of the novel was effective, with relatively short chapters collected under titles like ‘The River’ and ‘The Cottage’, which are repeated throughout.

My personal preference was for those passages which related to the rooting of the landscape, and in which I was learning about the Whiting family dynamics, rather than those in which Gretel was discussing herself.  Some paragraphs were particularly trenchant, such as this one: ‘What went missing in the night: themed from the edges of the riverbanks, the rabbits in their cavernous burrows, the moorhens that slept on the low branches, stray dogs wandering where they shouldn’t, the rows of fish from the fishermen’s camp, silver hooks, the neighbourhood cats and everything they had – in their turn – hunted and eaten: mice, blind fumbling moles, broken-winged birds.’

Exploring themes of self and identity, as well as the ways in which we interact with others, there is a lot to admire in Everything Under.  The use of the present tense, and the continual addressing to ‘you’, the protagonist’s mother, gives a sense of urgency to the whole.  There are certainly some interesting and thought-provoking turns of phrase and ideas sprinkled through the novel, and overall, it feels as though Johnson is a shrewd and perceptive author, really getting to the core of her characters. Everything Under is far more involved with character than plot, and the building of these characters has been handled well.  In places, however, the plot feels a little thin on the ground, and the parallels between Everything Under and Oedipus Rex were far too obvious.  There seemed, at points, to be only a single, frayed thread holding everything together.

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‘The Juniper Tree’ by Barbara Comyns *****

The Juniper Tree has been adapted from the Brothers Grimm fairy story of the same name of which, author Barbara Comyns writes, ‘is far too macabre for adult reading’.  The novel, which was first published in 1985, was Comyns’ first novel for eighteen years.  It has been deemed ‘very cunningly continued indeed… [it] could hardly be more satisfactorily accomplished’ by the Times Literary Supplement.comyns-1_2048x2048

Before launching into my review, I have chosen to include the original rhyme from the Brothers Grimm story to give one a feel for the darkness of the tale:

“My mother she killed me,
My father he ate me,
My sister, little Marlinchen,
Gathered together my bones,
Tied them in a silken handkerchief,
Laid them beneath the juniper tree,
Kywitt, kywitt, what a beautiful bird I am.”

‘The Juniper Tree’ is one of my favourite fairytales, and whilst I enjoy reading retellings of such familiar stories, I find that they can often be quite predictable in places.  Not so here.  Protagonist Bella Winter, single mother to an illegitimate young girl named Marline, is soon woven into the story of German woman Gertrude Forbes.  Bella’s first glimpse of Gertrude is ‘at once fairytale and sinister, and so the pattern is set for their future friendship…  As the snows thaw and different configurations emerge, so Bella, Gertrude and her husband Bernard take on the roles of a macabre, magical story which will conclude on the other side of madness.’

The novel opens with Bella’s lilting voice, and begins to set the recurring contrasts of beauty and darkness which can be found throughout the novel: ‘Quite soon after I left Richmond Station I turned into a quiet street where the snow was almost undisturbed and, climbing higher, I came to a road that appeared to be deserted.  Then I noticed a beautiful fair woman standing in the courtyard outside her house like a statue, standing there so still.  As I drew nearer I saw that her hands were moving.  She was paring an apple out there in the snow and as I passed, looking at her out of the sides of my eyes, the knife slipped, and suddenly there was blood on the snow.’

When Bella, who is looking for work and a fresh start, finds a position in an antiques shop in Twickenham, she becomes friendly with Gertrude, whom she soon discovers is the woman she viewed in the snow.  In one of the most obvious echoes of the original story, Gertrude begins to call Bella’s daughter Marlinchen.  A while later, after a firm but quite unusual friendship has been formed, ‘Gertrude conceives the child which has long eluded her, and the spell breaks into foreboding, menace and madness.’

This menace, and sense that something is not quite right, is captured perfectly.  Just before Gertrude gives birth, the following occurs: ‘We had our last picnic under the juniper tree, Gertrude ignoring the food I’d arranged on the table but almost greedily gulping down the last of the juniper berries that grew on the shady side of the tree – the berries so blue and poisonous-looking, and smelling strange too.  I’d seen her do this before; but this time she was snatching at the fruit with her long white hands and putting several in her mouth at once, and her lips became stained and her dress all spattered with the needle-leaves.’  Comyns also writes wonderfully about the nature of change, not just in regard to Gertrude’s body in pregnancy, but in the natural world too.

To those who have read any of Comyns’ work in the past, it goes without saying that she writes wonderfully.  An immediate feel is given for the characters, and the story has been vividly transposed to its English setting of the 1980s.  Comyns’ retelling is haunting, particularly as it reaches its climax.  The voice here, whilst manifested through the character of Bella, is distinctively Comyns’ own.

There are twists here which it would be unfair to reveal; this is a novel far better digested with no preconceptions or foreknowledge of Comyns’ adaptations.  The Juniper Tree is a highly accomplished standalone novel, but knowledge of the original fairytale seems necessary in order to better appreciate Comyns’ clever interpretation.  One can pinpoint what might happen at times if familiar with the original, but there are still some surprises along the way.  Dark and beguiling, The Juniper Tree is a masterful novel which I highly recommend.

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‘The Singing Bones’ by Shaun Tan ****

In his inspired and unique take on the fairytales of the Brothers Grimm, Shaun Tan presents seventy-five of their stories, each with an accompanying sculpture.  He has photographed each of these interpretations beautifully, with light and shadow coming into play almost as much as the objects themselves. 9781760111038

The Singing Bones includes an introduction by fantasy aficionado Neil Gaiman, and an insightful essay by Jack Zipes, entitled ‘How the Brothers Grimm Made Their Way in the World’.  Tan himself adds an afterword, which, despite its brevity, demonstrates his passion for his interpretation.  He has chosen to take extracts from Zipes’ 1987 translation of the Grimm tales; his text feels fresh and modern, whilst still getting across the horror of many of the stories.

Tan has focused upon both well-known tales – for instance, ‘Cinderella’, ‘Hansel and Gretel’, and ‘Snow White’ – as well as the more unusual.  Tan’s accompanying sculptures are beguiling and strange; some of them are even creepy.  Despite their differences, there is a marvellous coherence at play here; details have been followed from one sculpture to another, from the set of the eyes of particular characters, to their absence in others.  He has a style all his own.  Of his work, Gaiman says: ‘His sculptures suggest; thy do not describe.  They imply; they do not delineate.  They are, in themselves, stories – not the frozen moments in time that a classical illustration needs to be.  These are something new, something deeper.  They do not look like moments of the stories: instead, they feel like the stories themselves.’

In his introduction, Gaiman writes: ‘People read stories.  It’s one of the things that makes us who we are.  We crave stories because they make us more than ourselves, they give us escape and they give us knowledge.  They entertain us and they change us, as they have changed and entertained us for thousands of years.’  This sums up Tan’s achievement perfectly; he has worked with a slew of stories which we are all familiar with, but has managed to make them entirely his own.  The way in which Tan has managed so seamlessly to translate his distinctive style from illustrations and graphic novels into the three-dimensional form shows that he is an incredibly talented and versatile artist.  The Singing Bones is a marvellous choice for all fans of fairytales, or for those who want to see how the same story can be so differently presented.

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One From the Archive: ‘Mansfield Revisited’ by Joan Aiken ***

In Mansfield Revisited, a novel which was first published in 1984, prolific author Joan Aiken has presented a sequel to Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park.  Aiken writes in her introduction that she decided to write this book – one of the six sequels which she penned for each of Austen’s novels – out of ‘love and admiration’.  She goes on to say that she found herself ‘filled with an overmastering wish to find out what happened’ to the characters whom she had come to love.

‘Mansfield Revisited’ by Joan Aiken (Jonathan Cape)

The blurb of the novel is intriguing: “After the sad demise of Sir Thomas, Edmund Bertram and his new wife Fanny must sail to the West Indies to oversee the family’s affairs.  Back at Mansfield Park, Fanny’s younger sister Susan is left at the helm…  Yet the news of Henry and Mary Crawford’s return to Mansfield heralds the greatest storm yet”.

Aiken describes the way in which she has tried to work out the story of the sequel ‘by a mixture of imagination and common sense’.  Fanny and Edmund are now the parents of a ‘remarkably pretty little girl’, Mary, and a baby boy named William.  For some reason which appears to be rather inexplicable to the modern reader, baby William is taken along to the West Indies, but three-year-old Mary is left at home.

Throughout, it feels as though Aiken has adopted Austen’s tone and narrative style well.  Her dialogue wonderfully echoes that which can be found within the original novel.  The period setting has been well evoked.  The definite strength of the book as far as I am concerned is the continuation of Austen’s voice.  If it were read back to back with the original, I imagine that one book would seamlessly blend into the other, creating a coherent whole of sorts.

This does have a drawback, however.  It feels as though, by echoing Austen’s style so well, Aiken has put little of her own individual stamp onto the book.  Whilst it is clear that she is a great mimic, we do not get any real sense of her own writing.

Mansfield Revisited, as any reader of Austen’s novels would come to expect, is a very familial story.  The entirety is thicker in terms of dialogue and character development than in its plot.  The story moves on well and is believable throughout.  The novel is delightfully of the period in question, and is certain to hold appeal for all of those who so enjoyed Austen’s original.

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One From The Archive: ‘The True Story of Hansel and Gretel’ by Louise Murphy ****

First published in 2013.

9780142003077I am drawn to stories set during the Second World War, particularly when those stories are involved with survival.  I will read anything to do with this topic, from the diaries of those who hid from captors, to fictional accounts of the ways in which both capture and death could be evaded.  I also love fairytales, and modern day adaptations of old favourites.  I had therefore had my eye upon Louise Murphy’s The True Story of Hansel and Gretel for quite some time, and began it as soon as I had procured a copy.

Throughout, I found the novel incredibly powerful – unsettling so at times.  The sense of place and atmosphere which Murphy built up were truly stunning.  I loved the way in which she transferred the fairytale to a believable historical setting – World War Two in Poland, where two young children – renamed Hansel and Gretel by their father so that they appear to be more German – are left in the woods.  They soon come across the house of an elderly lady named Magda, who is purported to be the town’s ‘witch’.

Throughout, Murphy has successfully brought some of the horrors of the Holocaust back to life, and she describes the struggle for survival which Hansel and Gretel and their new family endure so poignantly.  Each scene, particularly with regard to the darker ones, were incredibly vivid.

The author has created a wonderfully crafted and memorable tale, which I found very difficult to put down.  Murphy’s ideas were so clever throughout, and the original tale woven in so cleverly, that I am hoping she will continue the theme of updating fairytales, making them fit into both our generation and our history.

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One From the Archive: ‘Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold’ by C.S. Lewis ***

First published in May 2014.

In Till We Have Faces, C.S. Lewis retells – or, rather, reinterprets – the myth of Cupid and Psyche.  Throughout, the story, which takes place in the Kingdom of Glome, is told from the first person perspective of Orual, Psyche’s ‘ugly’ older sister. 

Redival and Orual are the daughters of a king and queen.  When their mother dies, their father remarries rather quickly, and their stepmother passes away after giving birth to a baby girl named Istra.  Istra is rather quickly given the nickname of Psyche by Orual, who dotes upon her from the first.  As one might expect in a novel such as this, there is a thread of brutality which can be found from beginning to end.  Violence is a way of life in Glome, and the king in particular exemplifies this cruelty.

Orual is quite a strong heroine, but in some ways, she did not quite feel fully developed.  I did not like her, but on reflection, I do not think that I really needed to.  She is such a pivotal character in Lewis’ retelling of the myth, who serves to bring all of the story’s threads together coherently, and her behaviour – nasty though it was – was rendered understandable due to her past and the treatment of others under her father’s rule.  The same can also be said for Redival.

Lewis’ take on the myth has been well thought out, and the twists which he weaves into the plot are clever and often unexpected.  He clearly knows the original material well, and successfully puts his own spin onto the story’s events.  Despite this, I found that it took rather a long time – until Psyche’s birth, really, which does not occur for some time – to get into the story.  Lewis does not make the best use of his Ancient Greek setting throughout, and the beginning of the novel does not therefore feel grounded in any way. Some of the dialogue used sadly felt a little flat, and it was particularly unemotional during those scenes in which it really should have been.

Whilst I did not enjoy Till We Have Faces as much as I thought I would, it is a good choice for a book club read, as many points within its pages are worthy of discussion.  I am looking forward to reading more of Lewis’ adult books, particularly to see the ways in which they compare to this one.

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‘The Gap of Time’ by Jeanette Winterson ***

In justifying her choice to retell The Winter’s Tale as part of her contribution to the new Hogarth Shakespeare imprint, Jeanette Winterson writes, ‘All of us have talismanic texts that we have carried around and that carry us around.  I have worked with The Winter’s Tale in many disguises for many years’.  Rather than refer to her newest offering as a retelling, she prefers to call it a ‘cover version’.  Hers is the text which launches the new series, which will feature contributions from several of the world’s most prominent and important contemporary authors, including Margaret Atwood, who takes on The Tempest, and Anne Tyler, who has chosen The Taming of the Shrew.  The series aims to ‘introduce’ Shakespeare’s plays to ‘a new generation of fans’.  Hogarth Shakespeare itself is a member of Shakespeare400, which has been coordinated by King’s College London, to mark the four hundredth anniversary of Shakespeare’s death in 2016.

The blurb of The Gap of Time states that it ‘vibrates with echoes of the original play but tells a contemporary story of betrayal, paranoia, redemption and hope…  It shows us that however far we have been separated, whatever is lost shall be found’.  Here, Winterson tells the tale of Perdita, ‘the abandoned child’, whose story has a lot in common with her own.  It is worth mentioning that this is not the first time that Winterson has turned her hand to creating a retelling of sorts; Weight, about the myth of Atlas and Heracles, was part of the Canongate Myths series, and is well worth seeking out.

The Gap of Time consists of two plots, which intertwine at pivotal points.  The first of these is set in an area of the United States called ‘New Bohemia’, and deals with a black man named Shep, who finds a white baby during a storm.  The second – which is nowhere near as compelling, and flounders in places – takes place in London, just after the 2008 financial crash.  Here, Leo Kaiser is ‘struggling to manage the jealousy he feels towards his best friend and his wife’.  These plotlines merge seventeen years later in New Bohemia, when ‘a boy and a girl are falling in love but there’s a lot they don’t know about who they are and where they come from’.  Winterson tells ‘a contemporary story where Time itself is a player in a game of high stakes that will either end in tragedy or forgiveness’.

A nice touch is that the book opens with Shakespeare’s original plot; this leads nicely into Winterson’s own handling of the material.  She keeps each of the main elements of the original play, but invents more modern-sounding concepts and constructs to really put her own spin on things; for example, the BabyHatch which is installed outside the hospital which Shep walks past, and which allows parents to neglect their babies in rather a humane fashion.  She is masterful at immediately setting the scene: ‘I saw the strangest sight tonight.  I was on my way home, the night hot and heavy, the way it gets here at this time of year so that your skin is shiny and your shirt is never dry.  I’d been playing piano in the bar I play in, and nobody wanted to leave, so I was later than I like to be’.  Her descriptions, whilst not threaded throughout the entire text, are often quite sensuous in a simple manner: ‘The street had all the heat of the day, of the week, of the month, of the season’.

With the construction of several of her characters, there seems to be an overriding honesty.  Winterson has used both the first and third person perspectives to break up the separate stories here, and the former – particularly when it also uses a sort of stream-of-consciousness technique – makes it feel very personal: ‘I sat in the car like this after my wife died.  Staring out of the windscreen seeing nothing.  The whole day passed and then it was night and nothing had changed because everything had changed’.  The third person perspective does distance the reader from Leo’s story, however.  The present tense has been well cultivated, and gives a sense of modernity to the whole; it pulls it firmly into the twenty-first century.  Poignant phrases and ideas have been made use of too: ‘What is memory anyway but a painful dispute with the past?’, and ‘I discover that grief means living with someone who is not there’.

In The Gap of Time – and, indeed, with respect to the Hogarth Shakespeare series in its entirety – it is demonstrated that Shakespeare’s themes are still universal in the modern world.  His stories are just as relevant today as they were when he was writing, and the relationships built between characters are just as perceptive.  In The Gap of Time, darkness creeps in where one least expects it, whether you are familiar with the original or not, and Shakespeare’s story has definitely been well transplanted into the modern age.

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‘Marly’s Ghost’ by David Levithan ***

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.

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