Burying The Past

Only posting a couple of times a week means I get very behind in my reviews. Several weeks ago now I read a very good psychological thriller, Ghost Song, by Sarah Rayne, who was a new author to me. It was one of those books that gets off to a cracking start and manages to hold your attention easily, even though it was quite long (471 pages) and involved a number of intertwined story lines crossing over from the past into the present. The story revolves around an old music hall in London, the Tarleton, which has been kept shut up and closed down since the start of the First World War, with no sign of a renaissance in sight. The book opens with surveyor, Robert Fallon, making the annual report on the building and visiting it for the first time. He falls into a kind of fascination with the place, despite, or maybe because of, its eerie nature, the rustlings of ghostly presences, and the clumsily built brick wall that cuts off half the understage area and cannot be penetrated. It is obvious that the theatre has a secret deep in its unlit and unlovely depths. We then get transported back to May 1914 with the Tarleton a lively going concern, run by singer songwriter Toby Chance and owned by his parents, the unlikely but devoted combination of a former showgirl and a government minister. Already the theatre is haunted, but it’s Toby’s very present liaison with a high society woman that will lead him into terrible danger. From now on the book works to bring the past forward and to take the present backwards until the mystery is solved.

Bringing together past and present is the Harlequin Society, specialists and consultants on nineteenth-century theatre who have custody of the Tarleton. Researcher Hilary Bryant is determined to uncover its secrets and joins forces with Robert Fallon, whose professional desire to find out what lies behind the wall becomes inseparable from compelling curiosity. Ranged against them, however, is Hilary’s boss, Shona Seymour, who has her own reasons for wanting the theatre to be left untouched, its ghosts undisturbed. Shona’s story develops until it takes equal prominence with that of the music hall, and the deftness with which Sarah Rayne weaves her tales together is really admirable. Shona has grown up in a grim family environment, with a harshly authoritarian grandfather, a mother turning to drink, and a father who is never mentioned. Her one most persistent childhood memory, which returns to her in nightmares, is of mother and grandfather burying a body in the cellar of their cold and comfortless house in Scotland. The parallel that the story sets up here, between cellars, bodies and concealing walls that never quite manage to do their job well enough is, I think, enticingly explored.

Reading the book, it struck me that the essence of the psychological thriller is repetition. There is nothing we fear so much as the mere thought of what was traumatic and troubling in the past occurring once again in the present. Freud termed it Nachträglichkeit, a process in which one’s warning systems become wise after the event and exist forever more on a hair trigger, anticipating wildly at the first indication that similar events may arise. So Hilary and Robert may well be spooked by ghosts and naturally fearful at digging about (literally) in bricked up underground caverns, but it is Shona, who has been here before in a terrifying and unresolved way, who suffers extreme anxiety and blinding panic at the mere thought of the mysterious theatre wall. The psychological thriller pits its protagonists against their deepest fears, and provides overwhelming compulsions as to why they should confront them – certainly they would not do so otherwise. And the reader can sympathise with the fears evoked, with the vulnerability of the protagonists, but also perhaps with the courage they show or else with the certainty that the story will provide a satisfying resolution. But what seemed to strike me most forcibly was how powerful the past is, how tightly it clings and how difficult it is to shake it off. Our entire adult lives are spent wrestling with the ghosts of unresolved things, of nameless fears and unexplained distress, as well as with the direct consequences of our choices and actions.

The ghosts in Ghost Song arise out of all levels of past and present, and they are both malevolent and benign. What I most appreciated about this book was its richness of theme and its clever use of the multi-stand plot. There were a number of twists and turns I didn’t see coming (although I should in all fairness say here that I am quite dense about plot and fairly easily surprised), but all the different stories were gripping in their way and well balanced. And the resolution that arises out of them, the way they interconnect at the conclusion, was most satisfying. This isn’t great literature, but that isn’t always what a person wants to read. I found this an extremely good example of its genre, pacy, engaging, quite spooky at times and very well structured. Is it enough to say I went to amazon afterwards and bought two more books by the same author?

17 thoughts on “Burying The Past

  1. Bluestocking – I’d certainly recommend it as a good, easy to read, gripping thriller.

    Lilian – the author is not a stylistic genius, but it is very competently written and very well plotted (speaking of plots and episodes as we once were!). I’d love to know what you think of it if you do read it.

    Emily – oh yes, certainly a good one for you. Sarah Rayne has written at least 6 novels as far as I can tell and they are all spooky psychological thrillers. I’d love to know what you think of her if you get hold of one of her books.

    Harriet – it got me out of a mini-slump. You know the sort of book, easy and engaging and makes you turn the pages. I was grateful to it at the time!

    Stefanie – absolutely. When the rain pours down and you want to just lie on a sofa and be transported into a different world altogether. So often the case, I find!🙂

    Serena – thank you for stopping by! It IS a good book for the season. I am not a great reader of ghost stories, generally, but I’ve just read this and The Woman in Black and am hoping to read Sarah Water’s The Little Stranger soon. It’s very strange how fictional topics clump together some times!

  2. I tried one of her books earlier in the year–it was set in a prison where an execution occurred–well something to that effect. It was a story that also moved back and forth in time–also WWI period. I just didn’t click with this particular story, though I do have several other books by her that I do want to try. The one I read happened to be a library book that I was reading for my library’s winter reading program and wouldn’t have been my first choice of books by her, so I think it was a matter of the wrong story at the wrong time. I do have high hopes for some of her other stories, however and am glad to hear good things. She does seem like she would do suspense really well!

  3. Not heard of her before (but that’s pretty standard for me in the Reading Room!) Sounds like you’re hooked there. I’m usually pretty good at guessing the broad plot but I’m a sucker for those twists and turns.

  4. Dorothy – lol! You too? Ah, I am happy to be in such good company!🙂

    Danielle – well now isn’t that the way? Some books just don’t click at the right time. I read through the list of her works on amazon and certainly some appealed to me more than others (the ones that didn’t being a bit too dark and mad for me!). If you have her books on the shelf, I’d say she’s definitely worth another try. But you are so right that mood and context is very important and can make such a difference to reading.

    Pete – you know what? You should tell me the titles of a couple of books you’d really like to see reviewed and I will do one specially for you.🙂

  5. Ah thanks Litlove. I will try and think of a couple. Am currently reading David Lodge’s Therapy and I see his “Thinks” made your Top 50 list so that could be an option. But am more than happy to read about new books.

  6. David – I would love to know what you think of it. It’s not great literature, but I found it a really good relaxation book, and Shona’s story in particular was well done.

    Pete – that’s very noble of you! I reviewed Therapy on this blog quite a while back (I loved it). I have his new novel, Deaf Sentence, to read one of these days. And for you, I will do a request if you ever come up with one.

  7. Pingback: Sunday Salon: the Snowglobe Post « A Striped Armchair

  8. I just started this book (after all this time! That’s how much reading I get done these days) and popped back over to re-read your review … I’ll be really interested to see how my reaction evolves, or not, over time … I’m about 50 pages in, and am finding the structure painfully obtrusive, rather like observing the exoskeleton of an insect. It may be that it oils up a bit as it goes on, though. I’m sufficiently fond of music-hall lore to stay with it just for the rakish antics of Toby.🙂

  9. David – I do hope it gets better for you! I always worry a bit about recommendations because I never want people to waste time on a book they don’t enjoy. But I’ll be interested to know your thoughts whatever they are. I have books on my shelves that have waited ten, twenty years for my attention, but I know your case is particular because you have a lot of, ahem, nascent literature to attend to….

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