Books

Michelle de Kretser
Springtime

“Tell me there are no ghosts.” Frances, the brittle mainstay of Michelle de Kretser’s novella, subtitled “A Ghost Story”, seems like the sort of person who needs a good deal of reassuring. Serious and thin-skinned, she is easily spooked – and not just by the idea of ghosts.

Recently transplanted to Sydney from Melbourne, Frances is unnerved by the rampancy of the subtropics and by a city whose streets “ran everywhere like something spilled”. At 28, she bears the distinctly gridded imprint of her native city and an upbringing that valued thinking over feeling.

She has moved north with her lover, Charlie, who’s left his wife and child to be with her. Poison leaks from that breach in
a slow drip that feels to Frances like a curse. But then Frances seems hyper-attuned to every slight or irregularity, suspecting even the “shifty” Sydney sun of “skulking” in the wrong part of the sky. Neither she nor the reader is inclined to wholly trust her perceptions. Has she called down a haunting?

An academic, she is working on a book about objects in 18th-century French portraits – flowers, whippets, footstools. When they first met, Charlie, a fan of espionage novels, grasped the point of Frances’s research straight off: “What people don’t pay attention to changes the story.”  And so it proves in Springtime.

“Now, she was dead,” writes de Kretser, early on, of Charlie’s odious-sounding mother. “That meant Charlie was free of her, Frances believed.” Thus the reader’s eye is trained, your expectation quickened.

For all that de Kretser’s prose is spare – nowhere to hide the rabbit – and her pacing almost languid, she pulls off feats of sleight of hand that mark her as a master of suspense. The reader waits for the boo! and it’s so long coming that you wonder if you’ve missed it, or if (goddamn it) the ghost of the subtitle is metaphorical rather than metaphysical.

The shiver, when it comes, is just a sideways slip from the proper order of things; but to Frances, it’s the hinge of her life’s downward turning.

De Kretser’s bijou ghost story captures a fraying of straight-sewn seams, a season of unquiet.  FL

Allen & Unwin, 92pp, $14.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 8, 2014 as "Michelle de Kretser, Springtime". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: FL