Con­fus­ing struc­ture ham­pers am­bi­tious novel

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - ARTS & LIFE -

ill and con­fined to bed for al­most a year through­out most of this sec­tion. We are privy mostly to her thoughts.

This is how we learn about her two sis­ters, Kez and Nan, and her three broth­ers, one of whom, is con­sid­ered to have aban­doned the fam­ily.

Next, we meet her older sis­ter, Kez, who is busy pack­ing be­cause they are all go­ing to move into a “dou­ble house,” where older brother Ben has per­suaded them to come and live be­side his own grow­ing fam­ily. Here we learn about the sib­lings and var­i­ous other char­ac­ters through the eyes of Kez.

It’s a hard sort of life, a scrimp­ing, scrap­ing and scrab­bling type of ex­is­tence, but the bot­tom line is they take care of each other.

Var­i­ous se­crets haunt the in­di­vid­ual sto­ries, the an­swers only hinted at and never re­vealed.

The con­nec­tions be­tween the char­ac­ters soon be­come hazy. The mid­dle sec­tion brings us into the 20th cen­tury and in­tro­duces us to Rob­bie who re­turns from the war and is mar­ried to Edie.

Soon we move for­ward again and we meet Rob­bie’s mother and then Alan who is a dis­tant cousin to the fam­ily. Fi­nally the story ends in the present era with Clare, who is not the Clare of the novel’s be­gin­ning.

The links be­tween the char­ac­ters are not ob­vi­ous. Many of them do not even seem to be aware of the dis­tant rel­a­tives who pre­ceded them. Like the ghosts of the story’s ti­tle, they seem to hover some­where off in the far-flung past.

This is one of the dif­fi­cul­ties with the book. Swan presents so many char­ac­ters, many whom rarely sur­face again, over such a wide time span the reader doesn’t get a chance to get to know them well or care about what hap­pens to them.

There’s no ten­sion, no real thread that seems to bind the sec­tions to­gether or help pull us along through the fab­ric of the story.

The chap­ters seem more like in­di­vid­ual char­ac­ter stud­ies of var­i­ous peo­ple who are only some­what re­motely con­nected. The last sec­tion is an es­pe­cially dif­fi­cult read. Here the reader meets a con­tem­po­rary Clare but must switch back and forth fre­quently be­tween the past, present and the fu­ture.

Swan has an amaz­ing eye for de­tail and a knack for his­tor­i­cal at­mos­phere and won­der­ful char­ac­ter­i­za­tion. The scrupu­lous at­ten­tion to de­tail is rem­i­nis­cent of Munro’s sto­ries, how­ever, this par­tic­u­lar novel is struc­tured in such a way that, over­all, the nar­ra­tive seems dis­jointed and dif­fi­cult for the reader to en­gage or con­nect with.

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