Sunday 9 May 2010

Making amends

I found 'The Ghost at the Table' by Suzanne Berne a while ago in a second hand bookshop. I read her first novel 'A Crime in the Neighbourhood' early on last year, it won the Orange Fiction Prize back in 1999, and I had been looking forward to reading this one. I confess I took a load of heavy weight poetry back to the library, since I was kidding myself that I was going to settle down and read Derek Walcott's 'Omeros' any time soon (I read the first few pages and had not realised it was an epic poem that was going to require quite some concentration.) I decided I had been taking my reading much too seriously (what with the very worthy Philip Roth), the TRB pile has become just intimidating, and had lost something of the enjoyment. So I made the deliberate choice to go back to something I really wanted to read.

I took this book along to the home ed meeting at Blackwell last week and read the first half while M hung out with friends for about three hours (at least I remembered some proper (non-UHT) milk so the tea was bearable.) 'The Ghost at the Table' was just like her previous book in that it is a character book. The events are of secondary importance to the people and their interaction. I think this is obviously the writer's strength and interest, and she does it very well. It is the story of Cynthia and Frances, sisters, and their family history and their relationship with their ageing father. Frances has persuaded the reluctant Cynnie to come for Thanksgiving. Their father has had a stroke and is being abandoned by his much younger wife and Frances has been making arrangements for his care. Cynnie's reluctance is based on a long standing antipathy towards her father and a (it turns out well-grounded) fear that Frances has plans to facilitate a family reunion. The book is all about families, the way that different people in a family will have different memories of their childhood, and that events will impact very differently on each person. Alongside the story of their family visit there are flashbacks to their shared childhood and most specifically to their mother's death and their father's behaviour. The tension revolves around each being suspicious of other people's actions and behaviour around their mother's death, both blaming and trying to protect from what they saw as 'the truth' of the events.

The characters are all just so beautifully drawn: Frances, the older sister, used to taking responsibility, feeling responsible for everyone's happiness, struggling to make things right but tending to be a little overbearing. Cynnie, the youngest, remembers only feeling neglected and determined to alienate herself from a family she felt never cared very much. And Frances' two girls Sarah and Jane, who seem to mirror their mother and aunt in their relationship with each other and their parents. Their father is a brooding presence in his wheelchair, saying little but speaking volumes by his behaviour and meaningful stare. I found myself feeling almost sympathetic to him, that Cynnie judges him very harshly, as only a young child can, blaming him for everything that is wrong in her life. Walter (Frances' husband) is wonderful, solid and steadfast, reliable and maybe a little long-suffering, but very honest. I liked the way that even the minor characters has real presence. The Thanksgiving gathering is populated with waifs and strays that both Frances and Walter have tried to draw into their circle, each of them with something to contribute to the drama.

I think the strength of the book is what it says about families and her very astute observations, not being judgemental or ever taking sides (in spite of the fact the book is written first person from Cynnie's point of view). Cynnie writes historical fiction for girls, based around the lives of the sisters of significant characters opening up their stories from an alternative perspective. It is a clever device within the book for her to tell us the background of her writing, and how she inevitably has to tidy up the story of her subject's childhoods, to make them all neat and acceptable, having to miss out all the petty jealousies and hurtful neglect. Her current research is into the lives of Mark Twain's daughters and their supposedly enchanted childhood that became a troubled adolescence and ended badly for all three. The themes of confusion, misunderstanding, anger and resentment flow back and forth in the personal stories that Cynnie has written about, and so on between the generations in her story and through the layers of the book. Thus she concludes towards the end of the book, Cynnie reflecting on her parents:

"They, like most people, had done their best. You love whom you love, you fail whom you fail, and almost always we fail the ones we meant to love. Not intentionally, that's just how it happens. We get sick or distracted or frightened and don't listen, or listen to the wrong things. Time passes, we lose track of our mistakes, neglect to make amends. And then, no matter how much we might like to try again, we're done. Whatever inspiring song we hoped to sing for the world is over, sometimes to general regret, more frequently to small notice, and even, if we were old or sick, to relief. It's not easy to sit through the performance of another person's life; so often it is music without music, as Mark Twain once said, referring to something else in one of his maxims. Though we have to try to hear it. It's unbearable to think we can't at least try." (p.288)

Definite food for thought here. An excellent read, engaging characters and well written, not preachy or trying to be too analytical, just very good observations about relationships. She does not pretend to have all, or even any answers but the conclusion was suitably satisfying.


  1. there is something very pleasing about short poems, more than a page and I become a bit impatient sometimes

  2. Roll on Haiku, although we have been listening to Milton's Paradise Lost on Radio 7. :-) Doesn't that sound grand?
    I want to read this, I am inspired by nothing, heading up to Chorlton Library today with kids and will look it up.
    And you are a milk snob. :-P


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