The Word Ghost
It’s meant to be the ’70s, but it feels older in Brightley, the village with no streetlights an hour out of London to which Rebecca Budde’s family has just moved. The neighbours dwell in rose-laden cottages, make gifts of freshly laid eggs and invite the Buddes to visit because “the kettle likes a boil”. The only people more villagey are Brightley’s restless dead, especially Algernon Keats, who died in 1827, and with whose spirit Rebecca wastes little time falling in love.
Among many romances obsessed with ghosts and history, The Word Ghost stands out for its nuances. Even strong authors in the genre, such as Deborah Harkness, have a propensity to run away with a pernicious form of wish fulfilment whereby the narrator is overwhelmingly special. But Rebecca is flawed and the results of her romance are believably mixed. Even when the kisses are good, she has to wipe her mouth afterwards.
Christine Paice is a poet, and poems attributed to Algernon are threaded through the book, lending texture while keeping us in Rebecca’s head. It’s in the book’s interest to leave us there as much as possible, as Algernon himself is unendurably dull. Modern pens, for instance, vex him (“What
is this contraption? There’s nowhere to dip.”). His redeeming moment comes in a flash of jealousy, when he describes the other man as “a wastrel, a cur, a delinquent fool, thief of virtue … nothing but worm made indolent flesh, creature from Saturn’s dark rings”. This is a welcome example of where the author has fun with history.
Elsewhere though, Rebecca’s voice slips in and out of different registers; when she says an act takes “literally about twenty-five seconds”, the imprecision feels forced. Far better when she’s written as mature and lyrical. She is also capable of being as banal as Algernon, spending dozens of pages speculating about donkeys, or observing that “There are so many different ways of walking.” One chapter begins: “Pubs. England was full of them.”
This has logic, as if the character has been made more innocent by a village out of time. It may even be refreshing: at a time when books emphasise economy, there’s something nice about a novel taking these strange byways. It assumes readers have the interest and the time. Rebecca certainly would – “Aren’t books amazing, Algie?” she says – but some may prefer a brisker pace. CR
Allen & Unwin, 368pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 7, 2014 as "The Word Ghost, Christine Paice". Subscribe here.