Sunday 19 November 2017

Boyne's classy homage to the ghost story

Dermot Bolger

This House is Haunted

John Boyne

Doubleday, €17.50

The theatre director Joe Dowling once remarked that the Irish have a mortal terror of not being profound. The late Hugh Leonard made the same point in calling Bernard Farrell Ireland's only talented playwright: the rest were all geniuses. Both men were subtly imploding the expectation that every new Irish play must be the next Godot and every novel the next Ulysses, and at the critical perception that there is no room in the canon of Irish literature for what Graham Greene called his "entertainments".

These were Greene's lighter novels that he wrote in different genres (often still with a sharp philosophical bent) alongside more serious and famous books. Not everybody approved of such frivolity. At a lunch with members of the Swedish Academy once, two elderly Swedes told me Greene's sin of writing entertaining works ensured that he never received the Nobel Prize.

But, if it was a crime to be entertaining, Charles Dickens would not still be revered, 140 years after his death, as one of the greatest fiction writers. He masterfully bridged the gap between what was popular and what was insightful about the human condition.

This House is Haunted – the 11th novel by Irish writer John Boyne – could be termed a modern homage to the often ghostly worlds which Dickens vividly conjured. With the exception of the late Brian Moore, Boyne is the most chameleon-like of Irish novelists, adept at absenting himself from his own work and occupying foreign landscapes and historical periods that effortlessly change with each book.

He was exploring the legends of Buffalo Bill Cody and the chillingly famous Edwardian poisoner Dr Crippen before a worldwide audience caught up with his imaginative travels when his most famous book, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, appeared in 2006.

His voyages since then have included an original slant on the mutiny on the Bounty (possibly his masterpiece) and a subtly expansive retelling of the myth of Anastasia – the murdered daughter of the last Russian tsar, who was once believed to be the only Romanov child who survived.

What fascinates about Boyne is his disinclination to occupy any territory beyond that which captures his imagination. His latest book does exactly what it says on the tin – and is all the better for it.

In boldly entering the territory of classic Victorian ghost stories, it pays a courtly nod to past masters, with deliberate echoes of Dickens (a minor character here), Henry James and the Brontes. Then, uncursed by postmodern cleverness, it brings the reader into its world with an absolutely straight bat.

Eschewing any knowing irony, it gives us a lesson in classic storytelling that might have been written a century ago were it not for Boyne's ability to reference themes such as incest and child abuse that his Victorian processors could never approach head-on.

Indeed, while his narrator betrays the characteristics of an archetypical Victorian victim, Boyne allows her a decidedly modern mentality in terms of the inequality of the sexes.

Eliza Crane is a plain, relatively penniless young woman, orphaned by the death of her father, who answers an advertisement for a governess in a remote country house. Upon arrival, she discovers she is the sixth governess in the 18 months since a terrible murder occured there. The only one still living is her predecessor, who secretly placed the advertisement so she could flee from a house where she was constantly assaulted by a menacing supernatural force.

Although constantly terrified and surrounded by hostile silence from villagers, Eliza possesses true determination and a sense of responsibility towards the two deeply damaged children in her care. She knows they need to be saved, yet the closer she tries to bring them towards some sense of normality, the more enraged the ghost in the house becomes.

Truly frightening ghost stories root you in a seemingly normal world, then unexpectedly turn the tables. Boyne knows that in his Victorian setting, with its echoes and connotations, it is impossible to truly surprise the reader from the start. Therefore, we soon realise we are embarking on a ghostly journey that pays homage to masters of that genre and yet still finds unexpected twists and surprises in the hands of a true storyteller working on his own terms.

Boyne deliberately works within a tradition, and yet takes us on a highly original, entertaining journey that, like all great ghost stories, saves its most unexpected twist for the very end: the closing lines when we think – as we always think – that the danger has passed. Enjoy the voyage.

Irish Independent

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