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?