A ghost story without a ghost in it, My Ghosts reminds us that the past is always present within us. A myriad of characters spread over the span of more than a century is brought vividly to life through a series of episodes that, in the words of John Berger, are “brief as photos.”
My Ghosts is Mary Swan’s second novel (following on her 2008 Giller-nominated The Boys in the Trees). Her breakout novella, The Deep, won the 2001 O. Henry Award.
It’s possible to offer up a quite simple plot synopsis for My Ghosts. A family emigrates from Scotland to Canada in the 19th century, and we first meet the orphaned siblings when the youngest of them, Clare, is recovering from a fever. We follow that family through the generations to another Clare, a late-20th-century collateral descendant of the first. Only, in Swan’s hands, the standard family saga becomes something else entirely.
The structure of the novel is tripartite, and each of the three sections has three chapters. But the chapters function as short stories and the sections like novellas. At least one chapter/story, Burning Boy, has appeared independently. Another chapter, The Maid on the Shore, picks up the story of Abby, a character from Swan’s previous novel, The Boys in the Trees. Abby, the home-child-turned-nanny-turned-photographer’s-assistant.
There is no direct line of descent from the first Clare to the modern-day Clare, and even the accepted relationships are called into question. Also adding branches to the family tree are found families – children taken in by grandparents or aunts and uncles. Swan teases out the connections between generations, the repetitions of traits and patterns shared by individuals who will never meet.
The final section of the novel, Wish You Were Here, establishes a different tone. Contemporary Clare inherits of a number of photos whose subjects she is unable to identify, and she recalls fragments of stories whose sources she is unable to clearly attribute. Recently widowed, she packs up her house and in the process revisits her past. The first two sections drive chronologically forward until we reach something like the present, where we watch as Clare’s life runs on a backward reel to her youth. History moves inexorably forward, but personal history is less tractable, and moves in all directions.
Swan’s structuring in both her novels is idiosyncratic and potentially frustrating to readers expecting a more conventional narrative. My Ghosts is even less plot-profluent than The Boys in the Trees. But the thwarting of the reader’s expectations comes with its own rewards. Through her use of shifting points of view, Swan acknowledges that we are never going to know the whole story, that in a sense there is no whole story, merely these fragmented views of something that is always only part of someone else’s narrative.
Given the title, My Ghosts, it is natural to wonder about exactly whose ghosts are intended. It would be natural to assume that the novel’s “first person” would be the last in the line, the contemporary woman whose story uniquely occupies an entire section of the novel. But this section is narrated in the third person, with only occasional wanderings into the first-person plural in reminiscences of youth.
Instead, the “I” of the novel is located with Abby, a refugee from an earlier novel and an earlier life quite different from the one she leads here. Abby is neither a direct descendant of the characters in the first section nor a direct antecedent to Clare in the third. But without doubt she is the fulcrum of the story, both in her role as observer and as participant.
My Ghosts is a novel where stories of childhood and parenthood and siblinghood add up to a vision of being. Swan writes beautifully of being part of a family and of being alone, of waiting all your life to see a face you know you’ll never see again, a face you might not even recognize if you did. In her recounting of the disparate lives of a variety of interconnected individuals, she directs our eye to the connections in our own lives. This may not be a ghost story, but it is guaranteed to haunt you.
Sara O’Leary is currently working on a novel titled The Ghost in the House that may or may not have a ghost in it.
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