Reviewed by E.B. Heath
The title implies life and death, so unsurprisingly, Springtime: A Ghost Story, does not have the usual elements of the ghost narrative. No creepy houses, or deathly apparitions menacing from the shadows. Michelle de Kretser’s novella places the reader in the dazzling light of Sydney in the spring, teeming with energy, life could not be more apparent. Yet, in this luminous setting de Kretser weaves a subtle mystery that unsettles her main protagonist, Frances.
Frances’ life revolves around Charlie, who has left his wife and young son, Luke, in Melbourne to join Frances as she takes up a research fellowship in Sydney studying objects in eighteenth century French paintings. It is easy to assume that this strand of the narrative will be the main focus but its centrality fades into the middle distance as readers accompany Frances on her walks with Rod. Rod, a ‘hefty, muscled bruiser from the RSPCA’, suffers from deep-seated fear if confronted by other dogs, particularly toy poodles. Walking with Rod, whose nervous tension commands her constant attention, Frances senses, as much as sees, a woman and a bull terrier dog: ‘space was foreshortened, time stilled’. Frances’ internal reactions to the apparition of woman and dog might leave readers wondering if she is being unhinged by the esoteric aspects of her professional life and dealing with Luke’s visits, plus a few threatening anonymous phone calls.
The prose glides effortlessly in scenes that present snapshots of Frances’ fragmented life. Writing her dissertation. Life with Charlie. Coping with Luke’s visits. Dinner parties with friends. Walking Rod and her internal dialogue to sub-tropical Sydney. The appearance of the mysterious woman and dog, which Frances experiences as an otherworldly sensation, but also via more mundane thoughts, such as her unfashionable dress sense. At times, I had to re-read a few sentences to confirm what exactly is going on, and yet, feeling oddly there, in Sydney, in Frances’ head.
The main focus of this novella felt unclear until a dinner party scene over half way through. A variety of noisy chattering participants all talk stopped at once, it was conjectured that an angel or a ghost had passed. This led to opinions about ghosts. Joseph theorized that ghosts stories became a thing of the past when electricity became commonplace, illuminating dark corners so leaving the imagination no room to speculate. George disagreed; he felt the modern short story was the cause of its demise. Changing its form, becoming open ended, less formulaic, which apparently did not suit ghost fiction.
In Springtime: A Ghost Story, de Kretser has, perhaps, set out to by-pass all the usual tropes of the ethereal narrative and presents readers with a modern day ghost story – open-ended and brightly lit. The result is an elegant and entertaining piece of writing by an internationally acclaimed author.
Michelle de Kretser has a long list of awards, The Rose Grower, and The Hamilton Case won the Commonwealth Prize and the U.K. Encore Prize. The Lost Dog won the 2008 NSW Premier’s Book of the Year Award and the Christina Stead Prize for Fiction, and the 2008 ALS Gold Medal. Her fourth novel, Questions of Travel, won the 2013 Miles Franklin Literary Award and her latest, The Life to Come, won the 2018 Miles Franklin Literary Award and 2019 Christina Stead Prize for Fiction.
By Michelle de Kretser
Allen & Unwin
Paperback – ISBN: 9781760876708
$14.99; Pp. 92