Ethereal fable of age, love and longing
The Ghost’s Child
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.