Ethe­real fa­ble of age, love and long­ing

The Ghost’s Child

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Liam Dav­i­son

IT may have seemed use­ful early in Sonya Hart­nett’s ca­reer to draw com­par­isons with writ­ers for chil­dren and young adults in an at­tempt to place her unique fic­tional voice and make sense of the dark and of­ten dis­turb­ing po­etic vi­sion that in­formed it. Some­thing could be made of the in­flu­ence of Amer­i­can writer Robert Cormier, but it made equal sense to look to William Blake and the ro­man­tic po­ets.

Even­tu­ally though, writ­ers of Hart­nett’s stand­ing reach a stage where the only use­ful point of ref­er­ence is their own work. Rather than quib­bling about whether The Ghost’s Child is a work for chil­dren or adults ( it’s both), it makes more sense to take it as the latest work from a writer of re­mark­able orig­i­nal­ity whose first loy­alty is to the story.

In my eyes, Hart­nett es­tab­lished her­self as a ma­jor writer with the chill­ing novel Of a Boy and con­firmed that stand­ing with the sav­agely beau­ti­ful Sur­ren­der . Oth­ers were singing her praises ear­lier, but I still har­boured un­ease about where her work sat with its in­tended au­di­ence and the ap­par­ent bleak­ness of her vi­sion. Of a Boy and Sur­ren­der were clearly not so much books for chil­dren as books about child­hood, and they forced some­thing of a re­assess­ment of where she stood.

The Ghost’s Child is a fa­ble about age­ing me­di­ated by a child and im­bued with a mag­i­cal, child­like sen­si­bil­ity that soft­ens the full weight of its pur­pose and the event that drives it. A young boy ar­rives unan­nounced and un­in­vited in the el­derly Matilda’s lounge room and ap­pears to have no in­ten­tion of leav­ing. Strangely un­per­turbed by his pres­ence, Matilda of­fers him a cup of tea and en­gages him in con­ver­sa­tion.

The pur­pose of the boy’s visit is hinted at early when he grimly an­nounces, ‘‘ I have bad news for you.’’ Matilda has heard bad news be­fore and learned that it should be ac­cepted as part of be­ing alive. But the bearer of bad tid­ings ap­pears to have noth­ing more omi­nous to an­nounce than the rude as­ser­tion that ‘‘ your house smells like old peo­ple’’.

So Hart­nett sets up the ten­sion of age and ex­pe­ri­ence com­ing face to face with cal­low youth­ful naivety that drives this strangely haunt­ing fa­ble. Matilda re­counts the story of her life to the boy, who plays an un­likely but at­ten­tive wed­ding guest to her an­cient mariner. Matilda lived a priv­i­leged but lonely child­hood, yearn­ing for her life to be mys­ti­fy­ing and mag­i­cal as a fairy­tale, yet hav­ing no vis­i­tors and no friends who weren’t make- be­lieve or fe­line. Her fa­ther spoils her and takes her on mar­vel­lous jour­neys in pur­suit of beauty, from which she re­turns feel­ing more con­fused and be­wil­dered than when she left. Her mother barely ac­knowl­edges her. Maddy keeps her un­hap­pi­ness to her­self un­til she meets Feather on the beach, the strangest young man she has ever seen.

Feather is part- sprite, part- sav­age, more at­tuned to the airy life of birds. Maddy falls im­me­di­ately in love and the fairy­tale be­gins. There’s a pact and a self- de­feat­ing chal­lenge. They live an en­chanted life in a cot­tage by the sea: ‘‘ the lonely fairy­tale princess and the won­drous thing chained to the ground’’. In­evitably, things change and Maddy’s story trans­forms into a poignant tale of loss and long­ing.

There is a frag­ile and ethe­real beauty about this book, as though Hart­nett has turned a mir­ror to the light. It is a mag­i­cally cere­bral fa­ble that seems in con­stant dan­ger of dis­solv­ing be­fore our eyes. Rather than hav­ing the dark vi­tal­ity of Sur­ren­der , it is whim­si­cal and elu­sive; as though Maddy is re­count­ing a dream. Dreams an­swer to their own beau­ti­ful logic, but deny ac­cess to oth­ers and re­sist at­tempts to pin them down with plot or lan­guage. Some read­ers may ques­tion why they should make an emo­tional in­vest­ment in such bla­tantly make- be­lieve things as Nar­guns, fays, nymphs and talk­ing fish. Even the boy who trig­gers the story lacks sub­stance and is likely to dis­ap­pear as eas­ily as he ap­peared.

This, of course, is pre­cisely the point. This is a fa­ble and fa­bles serve a di­dac­tic pur­pose. The boy and the story are there for a rea­son, but he brings the shad­ows with him so gen­tly it’s dif­fi­cult not to cel­e­brate the joy of life and the meld­ing of in­no­cence with ex­pe­ri­ence. Liam Dav­i­son’s nov­els in­clude Sound­ings and The White Wo­man.

Il­lus­tra­tion: John Tiede­mann

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