Books:

The last book com­pleted by Nor­folk-born au­thor Mal Peet is a chill­ing, com­pelling ghost story, writes Rowan Man­tell

EDP Norfolk - - INSIDE -

Late au­thor’s novel fi­nally pub­lished

Mal Peet died three years ago but his fi­nal com­pleted book has just been pub­lished – a ghost story, set just af­ter the end of the Se­cond World War, and reach­ing back to a fam­ily tragedy in the First World War.

Mr God­ley’s Phan­tom is a darkly at­mo­spheric tale of a young man and a very old man, both wounded by war. Set on Dart­moor, it is a thriller, a po­lice pro­ce­dural and grip­ping ex­am­i­na­tion of grief and guilt, love and duty.

Mal keeps the reader en­grossed and guess­ing, right to the end of

Mr God­ley’s Phan­tom. Even the phan­tom of the ti­tle it­self is both an as­ton­ish­ingly beau­ti­ful car and… a ghost? A hal­lu­ci­na­tion? A fig­ment of imag­i­na­tion or as real as fear and death?

The book was al­ready with pub­lish­ers when Mal learned he had can­cer. Now it is the last of his eight com­pleted nov­els to be pub­lished.

Mal grew up in North Wal­sham, turn­ing his child­hood into the re­mark­able Life: An Ex­ploded Di­a­gram, which tells the story of a boy from a coun­cil es­tate go­ing on to gram­mar school, with di­ver­sions through ev­ery­thing from first love to the Cuban mis­sile cri­sis.

Mal only be­gan his first novel aged 52. His se­cond, Ta­mar, won the Carnegie Medal for the best UK chil­dren’s book of the year. He wrote for chil­dren, for young adults and for adults.

“Ev­ery­thing Mal wrote was so, so dif­fer­ent,” said his widow, El­speth, a chil­dren’s au­thor.

Mr God­ley’s Phan­tom started out as a short story and ex­panded into a novel for adults while Mal wrote an­other short story to ful­fil the orig­i­nal com­mis­sion.

The Good Boy, an ur­ban ver­sion of Nor­folk’s Black Shuck leg­end, will be re­pub­lished in the spring.

“He would al­ways say that he ab­so­lutely did not be­lieve in ghosts but then, when­ever our chil­dren, or vis­it­ing chil­dren, asked him he would tell this ghost story that hap­pened to him when he was a teenager,” said El­speth. “It would have been some­where near North Wal­sham, in a small aban­doned build­ing in wood­land. He would say he didn’t be­lieve in ghosts but he told this story so con­vinc­ingly, of see­ing some­one, re­flected in a mir­ror or bro­ken glass.”

The book Mal was work­ing on as he died was fin­ished by his friend, and fel­low au­thor, Meg Rosoff, and pub­lished in 2016.

Meg, who lives on the Suf­folk coast, said: “I knew he was ill. I had last seen him in the au­tumn and he thought he had sci­at­ica.” In­stead he had ter­mi­nal lung can­cer.

“He called to tell me that the chemo­ther­apy hadn’t worked and there was noth­ing else they could do apart from pal­lia­tive care and it was over. It was an ab­so­lutely hor­ri­fy­ing phone call. And you are des­per­ate to say some­thing and you want to say some­thing to help, so I said, ‘Well, I’ll fin­ish it.’ I didn’t even know what the book was about! It helped that I loved it and loved hear­ing Mal’s voice in ev­ery page. It kept me in di­a­logue with Mal, which was fab­u­lous.”

Beck, by Mal Peet and Meg Rosoff, was the pow­er­ful com­ing-of-age story of an or­phan sent from Britain to Canada in the 1920s, with themes of love, abuse, ex­ile and home­com­ing.

El­speth, who is still sort­ing her way through Mal’s un­fin­ished projects, reg­u­larly vis­its Nor­folk, both to see his fam­ily and to at­tend the an­nual Mal Peet me­mo­rial lec­ture which is part of the Uni­ver­sity of East Anglia’s Fly fes­ti­val of lit­er­a­ture for young peo­ple. The chil­dren’s book sec­tion of the an­nual East Anglian Book Awards, co-founded and spon­sored by the Eastern Daily Press, is also ded­i­cated to Mal.

He did not know that Mr God­ley’s Phan­tom would be the last novel he would com­plete, but its themes of loss and grief and legacy be­come even more haunt­ing af­ter his death.

Mr God­ley’s Phan­tom, by Mal Peet, is pub­lished by David Fick­ling Books, hard­back, £12.99.

‘He would say he didn’t be­lieve in ghosts but he told this story so con­vinc­ingly’

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