Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Confusing structure hampers ambitious novel

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In this ambitious literary novel, Ontario author Mary Swan attempts the enormous task of following a struggling family of Scottish orphans who live in Toronto across the generations over a period of about 150 years.

My Ghosts is clearly well written and filled with wonderfully descriptive prose, but it suffers because of its structure and fails to pull the reader along.

Swan's first novel, The Boys in the Trees, was a finalist for the Giller Prize in 2008 and for the Amazon First Novel award. It was described as "mesmerizing" by none other than Alice Munro.

The former librarian's novella, The Deep, won the American O. Henry Award for short fiction in 2001.

Swan divides the novel into three major sections, each composed of three chapters, which focus on a different main character. The story begins in 1879 and continues on until the present.

We first meet 16-year-old Clare just after she and her siblings have lost both of their parents. Clare is ill and confined to bed for almost a year throughout most of this section. We are privy mostly to her thoughts.

This is how we learn about her two sisters, Kez and Nan, and her three brothers, one of whom, is considered to have abandoned the family.

Next, we meet her older sister, Kez, who is busy packing because they are all going to move into a "double house," where older brother Ben has persuaded them to come and live beside his own growing family. Here we learn about the siblings and various other characters through the eyes of Kez.

It's a hard sort of life, a scrimping, scraping and scrabbling type of existence, but the bottom line is they take care of each other.

Various secrets haunt the individual stories, the answers only hinted at and never revealed.

The connections between the characters soon become hazy. The middle section brings us into the 20th century and introduces us to Robbie who returns from the war and is married to Edie.

Soon we move forward again and we meet Robbie's mother and then Alan who is a distant cousin to the family. Finally the story ends in the present era with Clare, who is not the Clare of the novel's beginning.

The links between the characters are not obvious. Many of them do not even seem to be aware of the distant relatives who preceded them. Like the ghosts of the story's title, they seem to hover somewhere off in the far-flung past.

This is one of the difficulties with the book. Swan presents so many characters, many whom rarely surface again, over such a wide time span the reader doesn't get a chance to get to know them well or care about what happens to them.

There's no tension, no real thread that seems to bind the sections together or help pull us along through the fabric of the story.

The chapters seem more like individual character studies of various people who are only somewhat remotely connected. The last section is an especially difficult read. Here the reader meets a contemporary Clare but must switch back and forth frequently between the past, present and the future.

Swan has an amazing eye for detail and a knack for historical atmosphere and wonderful characterization. The scrupulous attention to detail is reminiscent of Munro's stories, however, this particular novel is structured in such a way that, overall, the narrative seems disjointed and difficult for the reader to engage or connect with.

 

Cheryl Girard is a Winnipeg writer.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 14, 2013 A1

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