Friday, 19 December 2014

Review: Pharos by Alice Thompson

Sorry about the crap photo, though
I love this cover
What to make of Pharos, eh?

I picked this one up at my fabulous local library who have - I think - forgiven me for what I did to their Algernon Blackwood and are happy to let me borrow books again. And it's winter, so I want ghost stories and this one looked very interesting.

Yes. Yes, and it was. Set in the early years of the nineteenth century, Pharos is the story of a young woman shipwrecked upon the shore near a remote lighthouse. Having lost her memory, the keepers take her in, but her presence on the quiet island soon uncovers dreadful secrets and a terrible, haunting.

Thompson is a very skilful writer. Her use of ellipsis through the novel gives you bright glimspes in a way that clearly calls to mind the sweep of a lighthouse beam across a dark sea, the sudden bursts of comprehension in a mind darkened by amnesia, or (of course) the way the tellingly named Lucia shines into the dark places of the lighthouse itself. Other images are drawn through the novel in a way that is pleasing to untangle, creating a plot that moves slowly, that broods and builds in menace, that threatens wonderfully.

It's a novella of atmosphere, rather than character or narrative, and that was at once its weakness and its strength. It made wonderfully uneasy reading, but when examined its resolution was too simplistic. To my mind, the strength of a ghost story tends to reside in its enduring mystery, but Thompson ties down the twisting threads of the first two thirds of the book into a clear pattern of cause and effect. Yet, had she not done this, the earlier chapters would have drifted unmoored, beautiful to read but frustrating. Indeed, she ran rather close to this risk as it was.

At the same time, I appreciate it; a work of the Literary Gothic that does not hide away behind realism, but embraces the supernatural as an integral part of the form, and indeed the world. This is not a ghost story without a ghost, but rather a ghost story which uses the supernatural as its literary device to explore questions of knowledge, identity and culpability. In its literary qualifications it is excellently realised, my complaint would be with its somewhat heavy-handed resolution of the supernatural. So, yes. Very good, but no Woman in Black.

(And, as I won't post again until after the mince pie fest, Merry Yule!)

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