Friday, 17 October 2014

Review: An English Ghost Story, Kim Newman

More in the mood of Jago than the Anno Dracula books, An English Ghost Story sees us returned to the West Country as the wonderfully named Naremores flee city life, attempting to escape the tensions and neuroses that almost destroyed them. Coming to the idyllic Hollow, they begin to rebuild their relationships, aided by the strange, magical atmosphere of the house. Yet, as they grow closer and more confident in their magical surroundings, things take a rather more sinister turn.
First things; this book is addictive. Newman is a master of pace, and An English Ghost Story has a real nightmarish intensity. It sneaks into your head, making a world both treacherous and real. What's more, as one would hope from the title, it is very English. The first 'movement' as the family discover and fall in love with the Hollow captured all the wonder and mystery of an ancient house, and succeeded in being distinctly eerie without ever being openly menacing or distractingly twee. For me, it recalled Lucy M Boston's Green Knowe series, where fear was balanced with magic, so that a child reader suffered anxiety as to the benevolent intentions of the house's other inhabitants,whilst feeling cared for and protected by the narrative - and indeed the house - itself. Newman taps into this vein of national consciousness, conveying the confidence which the protagonists have in their story, whilst our more adult awareness renders their hopefulness creepy in the extreme.

However, as the novel moves into its second and third phases this slow build of anxiety, this hat-tip to the traditional ghost story, is dispelled by Newman's trademark focus on characters, and the self-destructive tendencies of the human mind. The drama leaves the dream-house itself and refocuses upon the hell apparent in the human mind. This section has all of the strengths and weaknesses of Newman's work; his characters are alive, brilliantly realised and compelling. However, the text is at times difficult to follow, the sudden changes of mood and behaviour a little jarring. There is madness here, and it is powerfully portrayed, but sometimes off-putting.

As I would have expected it is also gloriously nasty. This is not going to be everybody's thing, but I found some laugh out loud moments, as well as a couple of sly jokes that were at once hilarious and devastating. Artfully gruesome, Newman takes no prisoners with either his prose or his themes. His characters are not especially likeable. They are (to quote another novel) strugglers rather than saints. Jordan is the best of the bunch, but she is still a teenage girl with all that entails. Speaking of characters, there is at least one familiar face - as I would expect - but in a much more minor role than in many of Newman's other cross-novel references.

If I had any major complaints, they would be structural. While it hangs together better than last year's Johnny Alucard and is more cohesive than Jago, the different sections of the book don't always gel perfectly, and the reader is at times bombarded by with information, subjectivity and events. Things leap and lurch in places, the p.o.v. and narrative focus shifting as often as the territory inside the characters' minds. I feel like I need to give it a careful rereading, which for me is a plus, but might be annoying for others. The ending, which obviously I won't spoil, left me uneasy - but I'm not entirely sure as to why.

Generally, though, yes. A quick, affecting and occasionally vicious novel about the flexibility of identity, about the roles we play and the ways they can control and destroy us. A fabulous read for Hallowe'en - just as I expected it to be.

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