Bring­ing ghost sto­ries back to life

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - James Bradley

Spring­time: A Ghost Story By Michelle de Kretser Allen & Un­win, 92pp, $14.99 (HB) IN an en­vi­ron­ment in which pub­lish­ers are wary about tak­ing on col­lec­tions of short sto­ries there’s some­thing de­light­fully in­cau­tious about Michelle de Kretser’s new book Spring­time. At un­der 100 pages (it’s prob­a­bly lit­tle more than 10,000 words in length), it’s a won­der­ful re­minder of the good things that can hap­pen when pub­lish­ers take on shorter works.

As the sub­ti­tle sug­gests, it’s a ghost story, al­beit a thrillingly self-aware and light­footed one, fo­cus­ing on Frances and Charlie, a pair of lovers who have re­cently aban­doned Mel­bourne — and Charlie’s wife and young son — for Syd­ney.

Although they should be happy they aren’t, or not quite. Frances is haunted by the un­knowa­bil­ity of Charlie’s past, and the im­pos­si­bil­ity of be­ing cer­tain who he re­ally is. So when she glimpses a woman with a bull ter­rier through some fo­liage while she is out walk­ing her dog it’s per­haps not sur­pris­ing she finds her­self gal­vanised by the sense the past is in­trud­ing into the present some­how: “a sen­sa­tion that some­times over­took her when she was look­ing at a paint­ing: space was fore­short­ened, time stilled”.

The ghost story is a strange and mu­ta­ble creature, and, as the ten­dency for mod­ern ver­sions to ape the con­ven­tions of MR James and his con­tem­po­raries, one that of­ten seems to be­long to a dif­fer­ent time. Yet while Spring­time is preter­nat­u­rally alert to its an­tecedents — de­spite the bell-like clar­ity of de Kretser’s prose the story sug­gests some­thing of the thrilling sub­li­ma­tion of Henry James’s su­per­nat­u­ral fic­tion — it is also exquisitely mod­ern, sit­u­ated on the out­skirts of the same slightly root­less cos­mopoli­tan world of im­mi­grants and refugees ex­plored in de Kretser’s Miles Franklin Lit­er­ary Award-win­ning novel Ques­tions of Travel.

In­deed, in many ways the real echoes are not of other writ­ers (although there is some­thing dis­tinctly Maloufian about the story as a whole) but of de Kretser’s own work, from the dogs (lost and oth­er­wise) that haunt the story to the fascination with space and ge­og­ra­phy. Some­times this takes the form of re­flec­tions on the dif­fer­ing ge­ogra­phies of Mel­bourne and Syd­ney (un­like Mel­bourne, which func­tions by “the straight line and the square … in Syd­ney the streets ran ev­ery­where like some­thing spilled”); some­times, as when she writes “the vase is a con­tainer that draws on great dis­tances. The bound­aries of space and time that frame hu­man life are neu­tralised”, in the story’s evo­ca­tion of Frances’s re­search into ob­jects in 18th-cen­tury French por­trait paint­ing.

Yet the real plea­sure of Spring­time lies not in its emo­tional acu­ity or even de Kretser’s mar­vel­lous con­trol of her nar­ra­tive but in its so­phis­ti­ca­tion and play­ful­ness. Some­where in the mid­dle of the book Frances at­tends a lunch where the ques­tion of ghosts and ghost sto­ries comes up. Asked what he thinks of the ar­gu­ment that such ap­pari­tions were dis­pelled by the ar­rival of elec­tric light, one of the guests dis­agrees. “The way ghost sto­ries were writ­ten changed around that time. Ghost sto­ries work up to a shock, but the mod­ern form of the short story is dif­fer­ent. When a loose, open kind of story came in, writ­ing about ghosts went out.”

In another writer’s hands this sort of metafic­tional com­men­tary might seem forced or overly cute, but in Spring­time it is ex­hil­a­rat­ing, not least be­cause the story goes on to sub­vert this pro­nounce­ment not once but twice. Ob­vi­ously it would be wrong to ex­plain how, or why, other than to say the re­ver­sals when they come are de­light­ful and deft and thor­oughly un­ex­pected. And per­haps that one might do well to lis­ten to Charlie in the open­ing chap­ter when he re­marks that “what peo­ple don’t pay at­ten­tion to changes the story”.

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