My last recommendation was a big and colourful novel (“The Rook”) so this time I’m choosing something small and delicate – “The Ghost’s Child” by Australian author Sonya Hartnett. She is best known for her Young Adult fiction but she has also written books for adults and for children. “The Ghost’s Child”, which came out in 2007, has won prizes as a children’s book but I would call it a fable which you need to read at the right point in your life. That point might be when you are ten or ninety; it depends on the individual. “The Ghost’s Child” is available as an ebook but print copies are better for appreciating the exquisite black and white illustrations by Jon McNaught.
The story begins in an Australian seaside town when an elderly lady called Matilda comes home to find a strange boy sitting on her settee. Matilda (Maddy) has lived alone for a long time with only her dog for company. She is pleased but puzzled by her unexpected visitor. “He was like a strong bold bird that had flown into the room and, finding itself cornered, was bored, but unafraid.” Over tea and biscuits, the boy asks some very direct questions, such as, “Isn’t it horrible, being old?” Maddy struggles to explain how she feels about being old and looks back at the history of her life and loves.
Born in the late 19th century, Maddy was the only child of wealthy parents. She was a shy and lonely girl who never seemed able to please her mother. Many children have imaginary friends whom their parents can’t see. Maddy’s friend was the nargun; a cynical monster “old as the hills, larger than a draught horse”. When sixteen year-old Maddy finishes school her father asks her, “What is the world’s most beautiful thing?” Unsatisfied by her answer, he takes Maddy on a grand tour to see the world’s greatest buildings, works of art and natural wonders. They return to Australia when Maddy is eighteen. She is still unable to choose one thing that “is lovelier than anything else combined” until she meets a mysterious young man called Feather.
Feather lives on a beach, talks to birds, and spends most of his time gazing out to sea. Maddy is soon desperately in love and insists that she and Feather belong together. For a while their life in a secluded cottage seems idyllic but a force that Maddy doesn’t understand is driving them apart. Feather warns her that, “There is somewhere else I need to be – someone else I have to be.” Maddy’s search for understanding will take her on a voyage through seas inhabited by lost souls, talkative fish and battling monsters, to the Island of Stillness where a person’s deepest desire is granted. But one person’s paradise may be another person’s nightmare…
“The Ghost’s Child” does have something in common with my previous choice, “The Rook”, in that both books are by Australian authors. There is a great richness and diversity in Australian Fantasy fiction at the moment. Other examples I’ve recommended include “Spindle” by W.R.Gingell (July 2016) and “The Brides of Rollrock Island” by Margo Lanagan (November 2013). If you assume that Australian culture is still a bit rough and ready, please think again. Both Lanagan and Hartnett write particularly elegant prose. “The Ghost’s Child” is a book you may want to read aloud to savour Hartnett’s poetic use of language. There are dazzling descriptions of extraordinary events such as the battle between two sea-monsters (“Round and around the two legendary creatures careered, the leviathan tangled in tentacles and bellowing, the kraken silent as a tomb, its huge eyes flatly reflecting the clouds and the sea”) but Hartnett also captures the essence of ordinary things in a few simple words. When the boy tells Maddy that old people smell “Like coats in mothy cupboards…Like taps dripping for years and years.” you just know that he is right.
This short novel has some unusual shifts of tone and genre. The opening chapter and most of the scenes involving elderly Maddy and her young visitor seem to belong to a well-observed realistic novel. The unnamed visitor looks like a normal boy and mainly behaves like one. He’s easily bored, embarassingly direct and squirms when Maddy talks about love. Yet there are chilling hints that his presence is transforming the narrative into some kind of ghost story. Maddy’s account of her childhood and of her successful professional life as a grown woman could come from a historical novel similar to “My Beautiful Career” but her teenage years belong firmly in Fantasy fiction. Maddy and Feather are described as “the lonely fairytale princess and the wondrous being chained to the ground” and Maddy’s second voyage takes her into a dream-like realm where she can converse with whales, the spirits of the drowned and the west wind. Jon McNaught’s drawings, which are more like patterns inspired by the text than conventional illustrations, are particularly magical in this section.
I found the shifts between realism and Fantasy a bit disconcerting at first but then it struck me that for many people the teenage years do stand out from the rest of their life like an era of legend. It is the time for meeting your prince or princess, fighting the dragons of the established order and going on quests for the meaning of life. Fables that try to teach important lessons about how to live your life are fragile things. One false step by the author and belief fails and trust is lost. I found it jarring that the child which Maddy miscarries is always coyly referred to as `the fay’. Apart from that, the story worked for me because it isn’t a rigid allegory with just one set of meanings. The title of the book raises more questions than answers and the character of free-spirit Feather remains open to a variety of interpretations. He seems to be a young girl’s dream boyfriend, desirable because he is unattainable, but is he as imaginary as Maddy’s monster-friend? Even if Feather is real, does he represent the kind of spiritual longings that cannot be satisfied in the material world? Every reader has to come to their own conclusions.
“The Ghost’s Child” is inspiring without being relentlessly upbeat and it doesn’t offer easy solutions to life’s problems. Hartnett believes in being honest with children about the “hard laws and complicated outcomes” of the adult world and she writes unflinchingly about love. Maddy explains to her young visitor that “Love isn’t always a good thing, or even a happy thing. Sometimes it’s the very worst thing that can happen. But love is like moonlight or thunder, or rain on a tin roof in the middle of the night; it is one of the things in life that is truly worth knowing.” This is a story of failed love and incompatible desires but it also shows how Maddy survives rejection and loss by having faith in her own worth and courage. Young Maddy doesn’t always behave wisely or well but I’ve added mature Maddy to my list of favourite older characters in Fantasy fiction. Perhaps you would enjoy meeting her too. Until next time…