Bringing ghost stories back to life
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”.