Sunday, 9 November 2014

Springtime by Michelle de Kretser: A ghost story. Or is it?

Springtime: A Ghost Story by Michelle de KretserSpringtime: A Ghost Story (22 October 2014) by Michelle de Kretser

It's a ghost story. It must be, because it says so on the cover. Or is it? Well, it is, but that prominent subtitle is also deliberately misleading.

The protagonist of Springtime is Frances. A writer and academic in her late twenties, she's recently moved from Melbourne to Sydney with her new partner, Charlie, a much older man with a young son. She is disorientated by her new surroundings: in contrast to the ordered grid system of Melbourne, 'in Sydney the streets ran everywhere like something spilled'. She takes walks with her dog, Rod, whose imposing appearance obscures the fact that he's terrified of other animals. It's on one of these walks that Frances spots, in one of the gardens she frequently passes, a woman in distinctive clothes, and experiences 'a sensation that sometimes overtook her when she was looking at a painting: space was foreshortened, time stilled'.

Before this, there is an early glimpse of ghostly happenings to come when Frances remembers Charlie's mother, who, like hers, was French. She was 'a drunk' who stole from Charlie, but in the present day of the story she is dead: 'that meant Charlie was free of her, Frances believed'. The ominous suggestion inherent in this belief is obvious - it seems naive on Frances's part to assume this, and of course, the ghost story subtitle leads the reader to suspect that the continuing presence of Charlie's mother may well turn out to be literal.

The sightings continue, always when Frances is alone: each time she spots the woman, flitting through the garden with her own dog, her feeling is that 'the morning swayed, as duplicitous as déjà vu'. She can't quite pinpoint the house the garden belongs to - 'it merged with the sun in Frances's mind: it was something else that shifted about and wasn't always where she looked'. However, the story makes these experiences as opaque as the sightings themselves. It moves on, to talk about Frances and Charlie's complicated relationship, the menacing presence of his ex-wife, and Frances's difficulties in dealing with his son, Luke. At home, they receive mysterious phone calls which consist of nothing but a computerised female voice saying only 'goodbye'; Frances suspects they are somehow the ex-wife's work, but can't prove it.

The longest single scene, although it's fractured and scattered throughout the narrative, depicts a dinner party which sharply illustrates the tensions between Frances and Charlie, as well as Frances's feelings of not fitting, being conspicuously out of place. Talk turns to ghosts, and here de Kretser puts her cards on the table with a tongue-in-cheek flourish, as one attendee, a writer, theorises: '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'. Springtime is both that loose, open kind of story this character mentions, and a story about ghosts that works up to a shock, albeit a dulled one. It's at this point, wishing only to provoke another guest, that Frances is compelled to confess her own experience, and in the process, begins to feel frightened herself for the first time. The 'ghost' only becomes a real threat when it is spoken about, having hitherto only hovered around the edges of a story that is more about the difficulties of ordinary life and relationships.

When the secret of the ghost is revealed, it's benign, even mundane, though not without a twist of something macabre. If there is anything frightening here, it's the everyday things like Frances's uncertainty about Charlie, and their inability to talk to one another clearly about the things that matter; and while his mother doesn't hang around the couple as some sort of apparition, Frances sees echoes of her in Charlie, in the same way that she sees echoes of Charlie's ex-wife in Luke. An epilogue set eight years later shows that things - as we might expect - are much changed for Frances, but links with her old life remain. This underlines the spirit of transience that seems to be the book's major theme - the scene of Frances's sightings of the ghost can't be fixed in her mind, and her trust in Charlie fluctuates, as do her feelings for him, her belief in her work, and her certainty of her own place in the world.

While very short - probably too short, really, to have been published as a novella in its own right (although it seems to be available only as an ebook in the UK) - Springtime presents a beautiful, unexpectedly eerie portrait of believable and nuanced characters. 'What people don't pay attention to changes the story', says Charlie at one point (Frances is concerned he won't understand her research - she is writing about 'objects', small details, in eighteenth-century French portraits). And this is why it's so clever, as well as quite daring, that de Kretser's story is explicitly positioned as a ghost story. The reader is given certain expectations which are bound to colour their experience of the tale, what they do and don't take away from it. Personally, I wouldn't categorise this as a ghost story in the traditional sense, but as a self-contained short story and a character study, it is an excellent piece of work, with layers that demand to be unpicked.

Rating: 8/10 | Twitter | Goodreads | Tumblr | Bloglovin' | Buy on Amazon: Kindle

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